Newspapers, music, video, transit, and parks

The news news is bad news: my hometown paper is breaking up on the rocks, the LA Times is a shadow of its former self, the Rocky Mountain News is a memory, and the New York Times is on very soft financial ground. Almost every American city is a one-newspaper town, and those surviving papers are firing reporters left and right, closing capital and foreign bureaus, cutting features, and generally providing less content of lower quality. This is not, in my view, a Schumpeterian story about laudable industrial change with unavoidable Darwinian debris. News and comment provided by informed experts, at enough length to capture subtlety and complexity, are not just another product with substitutes: the Daily Show is not news, and even the Sunday morning talk shows and the Keith and Rachel hours are nothing like a real newspaper.

The social and political risks of journalistic meltdown are a lot more like social climate change: very big, and very scary, especially as the next few years are going to face us with choices from the local to the national level that are complicated, high-stakes, and not adequately guided by easy ideological bromides or slogans. Howard Kurtz provides a current roundup of misery in the WaPo today; Paul Starr has a long, reflective piece in TNR this week.

Just to give the problem some human scale, consider: the San Francisco Chronicle now has a circulation of about 340,000; assume generously another 300,000 on-line (not counting people who read both versions) and is losing $50m a year. So its readers could have at least the current, slimmed-down Chron for another $80/year each (paper subscribers pay $200 +/yr). All very well, but very few people want to read only the Chronicle; one of the wonders of the internet is that we can read newspapers all over the country and the world, and should. I dip into at least ten newspapers in the course of a month, and $800/year is not realistic.

Several stories compete to be ‘the’ diagnosis:

(1) Craig’s list and EBay are much better than classifieds, so they won and the most profitable advertising type died. Google is better for finding when the movie starts and where it’s playing, or whether Macy’s has shirts on sale this week, so other advertising left the building by the thousands of square feet.

(2) The important change is merely from paper to the screen you’re reading now, and journalism is just having teething problems learning to adapt.

(3) (a) People are no damn good (any more); lazy and ignorant, young people especially don’t care and won’t really read (b) …and they won’t pay what they should be willing to for news.

(4) The conglomerates and chains that bought all the papers cut their own throats by short-sighted cost-cutting on the editorial side, and flaccid sales effort on advertising, so the product is ruined and people rightly reject it.

The answer, of course, is (5), all of the above (in some form, I guess less snarky for (3)), plus something more fundamental: the efficient price (marginal cost) for anything that is delivered in digital form, like writing, is zero. The great challenge is to find socio/politico/economic machinery that meets three essential criteria:

(1) It will bridge the gap between that price and the real economic costs (like salaries and travel expenses for writers) of the product. Like the other declining marginal cost goods in the header of this post, writing can only be provided efficiently (enough and the right quality) by government, which raises the next criterion:

(2) It has to be accomplished without a Ministry of Information, censorship, or snooping on readers to see what they’re into.

And we don’t just want a bunch of words as cheap as possible, we want the best words, which means

(3) It has to reward creators differentially according to the value their work creates.

(One more complication, which I leave for another post, is the need for efficient search and selection. In a completely free internet world, allocating finite attention time (the only, but critical, cost of consuming news) is crippled by our inability to know in advance what’s worth attending to. Newspapers (all kinds of publishers) used to do this sorting and evaluation for us, and it’s still true that a byline story in the New York Times has, and should have, a lot more weight than a post on this blog. If something like the Times can’t make money providing this selection and quality assurance, nothing will.)

Starr begins to explore the idea of nonprofit charitable supply, or a sort of hands-off government-funded endowment of non-profit news disseminators. I can’t begin to list the obvious defects and risks of these schemes (not that they are fatal defects), but consider, as to the first, who has enough money to endow such charities, and do those people mirror society’s interests in emphasis, focus, issues, and policy? …and as to the second, what mechanism would direct the performance of these endowed bodies to behave in even a vaguely efficient manner?

There is a model, much underattended, originally designed for recorded music by Terry Fisher and described in his book Promises to Keep, with a lot of useful commentary in Lawrence Lessig’s essential Free Culture . The key idea is an appropriation to the copyright office of the whole cost of newspapers, adjusted annually (for music, taking the entire sales of the music industry, it’s about $30 per capita). When a page or article is hit, a counter clicks in the copyright office (without recording who caused the click) and at the end of the year, the appropriation is divided in proportion to clicks. This takes page hits as a proxy for value created; not perfect, but not too bad. It’s government funding, in a sense, but with any bureaucratic or political judgment excluded; if you post something on the web and you get hits, you get paid; more hits, more pay. I could not make a living from this blogging, but Paul Krugman (yes, and George Will) will do nicely…and a lot of ink-stained wretches in between will put food on the table and see very good incentives as to what to write about, and how to write better.

This is a revolution, of course, and will definitely leave a lot of Darwinian debris. But I haven’t come across another way. Weird and scary as it sounds, it’s time for (mechanistic, bureaucratic, judgment-free) socialization of the news.