Friday, July 31, 2009

Good Journalism is a Public Good

I've just finished reading two posts of great interest to those of us following the nonprofit model in journalism: TechCrunch's Michael Arrington on a "New New York Times" and John Thornton's response on his blog Insomniactive, arguing for a nonprofit solution.

The upshot of Arrington's piece is that the best 10 percent of reporters and editors at the NYT - the really good ones - should pack their desks, start their own news site, get funding from venture capitalists and then make a profit doing the kind of socially responsible journalism we expect from the NYT.

John's point is that when left to the for-profit model, the good stuff almost always loses out - as he says, it means "deciding between keeping the Baghdad bureau open and keeping up with TMZ." It's not going to work as a for-profit venture. And John should know - he's a venture capitalist.

No two ways around it. Socially responsible journalism - everything from investigating WMD to explaining healthcare reform - is a public good. It's a lot like national defense. Everybody needs it, but not everybody wants to pay for it.

This is not to say that every for-profit news organization will abandon a social mission. But if you don't like the idea of the government subsidizing journalism - and there are a lot of good reasons not to - that leaves you with the nonprofit sector to help get us out of the fine mess we're in.

Take it from Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, which has done more than anybody to demolish the newspaper business model. It was a year ago today at an Advertising Age conference where he famously lamented the decline of investigative journalism. Schmidt called the state of affairs "a tragedy for America," and said, "I'm very worried about it."

Google still hasn't done a thing to help remedy the problem. But that's another post.


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