Ezra Klein: Better to Subsidize Big Media Than Let Them Experiment


Over at the Washington Post, omniscient child pundit Ezra Klein attempts to solve the inevitable underlying economic context behind the Post getting caught last week trying to peddle its own ass to health care lobbyists:

The question, then, is whether we want newspapers (and magazines, and so forth) so agonizingly vulnerable to these pressures. The news, after all, is not a market good. Among other things, it is not profitable to sell it.

Can I just interrupt this fascinating analysis with a disproportionate complaint about an irritating writing tic endemic to Washington's Juice-Box set, of which Klein is a kind of Planeswalker in Chief? It's the thens, the so forths, the after alls, the (not pictured, but equally deadly) insofars, all of which are kissing cousins to master linguist Noam Chomsky's insufferable of courses. Of course, insofar as these words and phrases have any content, after all, it's to convey a chin-stroking authorial authority, while breezing right past highly debatable subjects as if they were settled issues. For instance, the curious notion that news "is not a market good."

What is a "non-market good"? According to the quickest definition I could find, over at GreenFacts.org,

a non-market good or service is something that is not bought or sold directly. Therefore, a non-market good does not have an observable monetary value. Examples of this include beach visits, wildlife viewing, or snorkeling at a coral reef.

I think we have all observed, and participated in, the buying and selling of news products (speaking of which, subscribe to Reason today!), and the accumulation of monetary value in the news-producing hands of (to name one popular hate-bear) Rupert Murdoch. Furthermore, to assert that "it is not profitable to sell" news demonstrates not just historical ignorance, but a misreading of present day balance sheets as well. The much-maligned and bankrupt Tribune Co., to pick one wobbly newspaper/television company out of a hat, has actually earned a higher net profit margin this year than Wal-Mart–an estimated 8 percent to around 5.5 percent. The news remains profitable, but the provision thereof by companies using expensive 20th century models of staffing and deliverance is being questioned, and rightly so, by the same capital markets that once provided scores of billions to once-fattened newsrooms.

Having confidently misdescribed the problem, Klein charges on to a familiar, if dangerous, solution:

What DOESN'T he know everything about!

Thankfully, society has developed models for funding things we deem important but don't entirely trust to the private market. We have public universities and public centers for disease research and public firefighting departments and a public military and public roads. Why should news be different?

You can argue that it must be oppositional to government, of course, and so government funding is a conflict of interest. But many European countries have solved that problem by developing automatic funding structures free of government influence. Meanwhile, it's not as if NPR or the BBC seem particularly concerned about criticizing their respective governments (nor, for that matter, do professors at public universities seem particularly cowed). And those funding mechanisms can, at the least, be transparent, predictable, and partial, which would be better than newspapers quietly trying a thousand things, many of them far from the public eye.

Italics mine, to demonstrate the soft sophistry of low absolutism. Follow that link on "solved," and you get an October 2007 Ezra Klein piece in the American Prospect, whose only evidence for that claim is A) a paraphrase from a 2007 Columbia Journalism Review column by a recent journalism school grad trumpeting Sweden's newspaper subsidies as "encouraging reportorial competition," B) a quote from a UC San Diego communications professor saying that Swedish subsidies "don't lead journalists to be timid," and Klein's own claim that the BBC produces with its $7 billion subsidy "credible, adversarial journalism that need not compete on grounds of sensationalism."

I will let actual Swedish taxpayer and current BBC subscriber Michael C. Moynihan address the truthiness of those specifics (read some of his thoughts on the subject here), but from my experience covering media policy in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, and (more pertinently to the discussion) having been married to a longtime contributor to (and defender of) the French and Swiss national public radio systems, I can say that any notion of those five countries having come anywhere close to "solving" the conflict-of-interest problem is laughable. With every new election in France comes new, more politically aligned heads of public broadcasting. The current French president in particular is notorious for applying successful pressure on his media mogul pals for more flattering coverage. And wherever you see a dominant, subsidy-fueled national television network, you will also see a long history of suppressed competition, followed by an all-too-brief recent era of overstaffed broadcasters scrambling after an audience that finally has some other choices.

Most relevantly of all to a discussion about news organizations' profitability and quality, the largely unsubsidized U.S. newspaper industry has long been the envy of its European cousins, precisely on grounds of profitability, quality, and quantity, both of staffing and output. It is interesting that that model is now under threat, but it is not cause to spend my tax money propping up incumbent billionaires and otherwise aping a European system that on balance has produced inferior results.