Robert W. McChesney’s Salon piece nails the higher education/journalism analogy, and reveals something that all our talk about “business models” fails to acknowledge:
There is probably no better evidence that journalism is a public good than the fact that none of America’s financial geniuses can figure out how to make money off it. The comparison to education is striking. When managers apply market logic to schools, it fails, because education is a cooperative public service, not a business. Corporatized schools throw underachieving, hard-to-teach kids overboard, discontinue expensive programs, bombard students with endless tests, and then attack teacher salaries and unions as the main impediment to “success.” No one has ever made profits doing quality education—for-profit education companies seize public funds and make their money by not teaching. In digital news, the same dynamic is producing the same results, and leads to the same conclusion. (h/t Brad DeLong):
This is the extraction economy argument all over again, in which private companies make money by seizing public funds and not performing the now-privatized public serve (e.g., education, public parks, museums, etc.) . It’s a quieter, more plausible-sounding way of denying people the public services they once expected and received, while funneling money towards one’s friends and donors.
In the case of journalism, it has resulted, as McChesney observes, in a relentless attrition of the paid labor force of journalism that once provided the content, even while the quality of the now outsourced product declines to the point where no one would want to spend money on it. The internet’s effect has been to whittle away at the business model that once sustained newspapers (car dealerships and department stores once paid for local news), without leaving anything that could plausibly take their place. We might make a similar observation about all the “disruptive” models of education we’ve been hearing about lately. How, exactly, does giving away content on the internet lead to the financial health of the institution giving its content away? Who does end up paying for something that’s supposedly “free”?
It’s also worth noting how much the new online journalism, like the new higher education “business models” rely on massive amounts of “volunteer” labor from underemployed or aspiring laborers, who offer them free content in the hope of “exposure” rather than pay. (And even if this kind of writing is conceived, like graduate education, as a form of apprenticeship rather than de facto pauperization of the profession, it still suggests the long-term unsustainability of the model). I’ll leave the last word to writer/editor Teresa Nelson Hayden, who commented in this way on the value of the writing done “for free” in the public sphere:
“The role of journalism in a democracy is a public trust. It is much abused. It is a scandal. Writers aren’t expensive, but they aren’t free. If Atlantic isn’t paying them, someone else is. By not paying its writers, the Atlantic has thrown itself open to manipulation, astroturfing, and other disinformation. The principle you learn in Cinema 101 is that movies don’t film themselves. There’s always someone behind the camera. The same goes for journalism. We thought we knew what it was: this publication hires these writers. Now we know other agendas and relationships were in play, and we don’t know what they were. So yes, we feel betrayed.”