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June 18, 2014 12:08 PM The Tenuous Future of Journalistic Cross-Subsidies

By Ed Kilgore

The specter that has been haunting journalism in recent decades is the poor profitability of news-gathering and quality analysis, and the increasing ability and willingness of media companies to drop whatever doesn’t meet the bottom line. In a stimulating article in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, WaMo contributing editor and long-time media critic Steven Waldman argues that the cross-subsidies of “good” by “profitable” journalistic content characteristic of newspapers and television networks in the past has been at least temporarily replicated by online enterprises like HuffPost and BuzzFeed. But it may not last.

In the past, when media companies funded labor-intensive journalism—foreign coverage, investigative projects, beat reporters who spend days tracking down leads—we believed this reportage was very valuable, even financially. Readers wanted to know, advertisers liked the prestige that high-quality reporting brought, and the publications made plenty of money.
Occasionally a wiseass would say something like, “The box scores are paying for the Baghdad bureau,” and we thought, Well, maybe that cross-subsidy exists, maybe it doesn’t—but the whole package seems to be doing just fine.
The Internet blew apart the package and eliminated the cross-subsidy. Now readers can go to ESPN and get box scores, and they can go to a separate site to get news. Sports scores no longer subsidize the foreign correspondent, and the comics no longer support the city hall reporter.
This has led us to confront the ugly reality of just how lousy—financially speaking—many of our journalistic projects were. Media managers can now produce a profit-and-loss statement not only for the news division as a whole, but for each reporter—and each piece of content. Managers have mostly concluded that volume—getting reporters to do faster stories and more of them—generates a better P&L outcome. Articles that take a few days to report, let alone a few weeks or months, rarely have a positive return on investment.

But listicle and celebrity-driven hybrid internet sites have re-created cross-subsidies, albeit via “fluff” that annoys many “serious” readers. HuffPost and BuzzFeed, notes Waldman, have reinvested profits in “real” news. There are limits, though, because the model requires economies of scale that don’t work for local news coverage; “real” news coverage will be the first thing to go when media companies experience adversity; and advertisers are less and less reliant on intermediaries to meet their marketing needs. Waldman concludes with some pessimism about the sustainability of new cross-subsidies for good journalism, but expresses hope that future innovations will create future models for “paying for the news.”

This last note is worth emphasizing. There was a time not that long ago when rapid cutbacks in TV network coverage of international news was deemed an irreversible, structural trend. Then CNN came along with a new model—some of it based on aggressive recruitment of under-utilized and lower-cost talent, particularly the young women who soon dominated production roles—and suddenly international news coverage experienced a renaissance, not because new cross-subsidies emerged but because news itself became more profitable. But the underlying trends are not encouraging for those who crave news of the world beyond the red carpets.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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