Monday, July 27, 2009

A business model for reporting

I would pay $50 a year for Seymour Hersh's reporting alone.* So, suppose I did that. Then suppose that there are twenty thousand people in America like me; this does not seem farfetched. That's a million-dollar budget just to fund one man's reporting. Aside from paying himself, he could easily fund travel, online distribution, and a handful of apprentices and assistants out of that budget. So I would not be funding Seymour Hersh, the individual; I would be funding the Seymour Hersh news team.

There are a handful of other reporters — off the top of my head, Elizabeth Kolbert, James Fallows, and Matt Taibbi come to mind — for whom I'd pay a similar amount. In fact, I can probably afford to spend a thousand dollars a year to patronize twenty journalists whom I actually respect. This is considerably less than I donated to miscellaneous humanitarian organizations last year. I say this not to brag about my personal charity, which is actually below median for my income, but to remark that once normal people get jobs in the professional class, they start donating this rough magnitude of money to charity.

So, suppose that there are one hundred reporters in America like Hersh. That is a one hundred million dollar domestic industry dedicated to pure reporting.

Notice that this industry would be mostly unconstrained by the need to seek eyeballs. I do not want to give Hersh money because I think his articles will get more page views than the latest article on trends in reality television (the center article on Sunday's NYTimes front page). I want to give him money because he discovers things that I want discovered.

This seems like a much more rational business model for news reporting in the public interest than the current one, where news is funded by supermarket coupons and advertisements for department stores and used cars.

Note that you can generalize the model. I picked 20,000 people donating $50 a year because that's roughly what I'd pay. Clearly, you can stretch the model in either the direction of higher prices or more people. At one extreme, there's the individual-patronage model: Bill Gates can just pay a million dollars a year to his pet journalist. At the other extreme you could fantasize about charging twenty million people a nickel a year. (This seems dubious to me. Due to transaction costs and coordination issues, I think it's much easier to wrangle larger sums of money out of smaller numbers of people. On the other hand, ideally you'd want a large enough cadre of donors so that no individual has too much pull with the reporter.) If you look at the whole spectrum, it's hard to believe that there's no working point on that spectrum. Maybe it's 4,000 people donating $250 a year. (That's about as much as a family membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or a medium-sized pledge for the local NPR affiliate.) Maybe it's something else. The point is that there are three hundred million people in this country and for a nationally recognized journalist it's not hard to imagine that there's enough patronage out there to fund his or her work.

Now, no doubt there are many practical challenges one would have to overcome in order to reorganize the news industry as a whole along these lines. And the details definitely wouldn't work out exactly as I've painted it**. But revolution's never a sure thing. I, for one, would love to see someone try it.

*On the other hand, I would not pay any amount of money to support Thomas Friedman*** or David Brooks. It is a curious artifact of the current newspaper industry that I cannot give money to writers whom I respect without also subsidizing hacks. The distribution of my news dollar to people who write stuff is determined by the whims of people like Bill Keller and Marcus Brauchli. These guys do not, as far as I can tell, try to produce a product which describes reality; they aim to achieve "balance" as defined by the political sensibilities of their social networks. In fact, it is not clear to me that they even understand the difference between these two things.

**Random guesses: (1) journalists like to be around other journalists, so individual teams would rent offices or share coworking space together; (2) the economics of risk would lead to agreements to share revenue and other resources among teams. The end result might be something like a current newsroom but with more distributed authority and a different revenue stream.

***Actually, I would pay negative money for Thomas Friedman. That is, you would have to pay me to read Friedman regularly, and I would probably pay you money if you could credibly offer to stop Friedman from writing.


  1. Seems like a decent idea, but don't Hersh and other journalists rely on all kinds of institutional and structural support in their writing? e.g. the New Yorker's fact checkers, editors, foreign bureaus, etc. It seems like it would be more efficient for good journalists to share these collective burdens.

    Secondly, are you at all worried about objectivity, especially when it comes to a single Gates-esque donor? Yes, it could be written into the contract, but it's still hard to do when one dude's paying your salary.

    What about an intermediate solution, in which we attribute portions of our subscription price for each magazine to our favorite of its writers, and the magazines would use that information for compensation and selection of their articles? Would we as readers be able to tease apart journalistic skill (good writing, ideas) from shared political bias (hearing what we want to hear)?

    Btw, I agree with you 100% about Brooks and Friedman, of course. A trickier subject is Gladwell, whom, I find entertaining to read even though I know that for the most part he's spouting nonsense.

  2. Re: institutional/structural support, I guess I should also emphasize more strongly what I wrote only offhand in my footnote, which is that in practice the reporters would almost certainly band together to share resources, insulate themselves against risk, etc. Truthfully, therefore, stuff like the American Prospect and seem like more probable models for the practice of journalism, even though they don't offer as much individual accountability as a direct reporter-patronage model.

    Re: donor influence, this is why you'd ideally want a broad donor base. Right now, the "objectivity" of any journalist is regulated

    (a) directly: by the very small cadre of editors at the paper where (s)he works, and

    (b) indirectly: by the norms of his/her journalistic peers.

    The indirect forces would still exist (for a while anyway), and somewhere around a thousand donors it seems to me that you'd cross a threshold where the reporter has sufficient independence from any individual to avoid being too severely regulated by individual donor preferences. At least, they'd be as independent as reporters are today.

    Of course, there's danger of groupthink within the donor base, but that's also a danger with editorial boards and the journalistic profession as a whole. It's not obvious to me that the situation would be worse.

    Re: whether donors will pay for objectivity, well, it could end up sort of like think tanks today. Think tanks, like investigative reporters, produce "raw" original research; some are known to be ideological mouthpieces for their donors' policy views, and others less so, but ultimately they're all just part of an ecosystem that also includes aggregators and filters. Balance is achieved not by relying on the objectivity of all the original sources but by having a robust dialogue of comparison and criticism. I don't think anybody reasonable is worried that the rise of blogging will lead to a deficit of informed and thoughtful commentary; it's always the original investigative research that people worry about.

    Re: the Arrington piece, there's much to quibble with, but I agree with the underlying insight that reporting itself is much cheaper than the production of the aggregate NYTimes media product.

  3. Wow, sorry, somehow I had managed to read * and *** but not **. So yeah, good points =).