one definition of a “public good”: not just unprofitable, but impossible to profit from . . .

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.”



4 responses to “one definition of a “public good”: not just unprofitable, but impossible to profit from . . .

  1. Art works the same way. But the market folk would say, if it’s good, people should want to pay for it. So then maybe the analogy could be to something like climate change, where short-term and long-term goods are clearly at odds.

    It’s interesting also how these professionalism considerations crosscut the great debate about content-based vs. inquiry-based learning. To a certain kind of colleague, the barbarians of marketized facility can only be resisted with zealous commitment to Knowledge. Although that particular quick fix at least has a 3000-year history to recommend it.

  2. Dave Mazella

    The internet did successfully transform recorded music from something you would want to pay for into something no one expects to pay for–very much at the expense of music corporations and certain tiers of musicians. Aaron Bady once made the argument, which I find convincing, that most discussions of online education assume the equivalence of recorded music and recorded lectures, but a better analogy might be the painstaking work of music transcription: learning how to play songs by working through a recording phrase by phrase. But notions of “ownership” over recorded music seem to have evaporated, along with the idea that people receive money in return for their ownership over that material.

    The most forward-looking pedagogies tend to be found in fields like medicine or other applied fields, because those people have to learn how operate in a very complex and demanding professional environment, and lectures seem particularly irrelevant in those contexts. Scientists nowadays like to say that they didn’t learn any science until they stopped taking lectures and started working in the field or in a lab. But that doesn’t seem to suggest to anyone to stop teaching those lectures.

  3. Not so, entirely – I’ve just linked a terrific discussion on this point at dv. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if the scientists turned out to be better advocates and practitioners of the liberal arts than the humanists…. But no, as I survey my own campus’ faculty I find no reliable generalizations about commitment to student learning (vs., to be crude, commitment to dogmatic inculcation). It seems to be a personality thing, but whether it can also be traced to our colleagues’ own educations and the dispositions that were rewarded there, I can only speculate.

  4. Dave Mazella

    Thanks for the link, Carl. I was thinking of Mazur when I wrote the reply above. The funny thing has been the resistance to Mazur’s message among his own peer group, and frankly among social scientists and humanities types too. Shulman’s notion of professional or disciplinary “signature pedagogies” makes room for “rituals” (note the recourse to “culture”) to talk about the initiation rites that are repeated on generation after generation of students, without scrutiny into their effectiveness. The lecture is one of those rituals. From what I’ve seen and read, the best predictor of faculty interest in developing more effective pedagogy is whether they define their own research and teaching in narrowly disciplinary ways. The more conventionally discipline-bound, the harder to imagine alternatives to the Way They Trained Me.