The great debate: public vs. private journalism

This post was written by Jonathan Peters. The data comes to us from the Free Press sponsorship on Spot.Us and is part of our research into community-focused sponsorship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Profits are killing journalism.

Publishers and editors care more about the bottom line than the quality of their reporting.  Newsrooms are shrinking, as a result, and good stories have gone untold.  The public is worse off because of it.

So goes one argument, at least, in the debate about public funding of journalism.  It’s a hot topic that appears immune to any clear-cut solution, and it’s shaking the foundation of what it means to do journalism and the best way to do it.  Among the big questions are:

Should public funding expand to cover the gaps left by the shrinking private news business? Could it expand without government support, and would this create conflicts? Would a heavily subsidized public media serve us better than the private media?  If so, how?

With a sponsorship from Free Press, we asked the Spot.Us community to tell us what they thought.  Then, we invited the 407 users who took the survey to decide where the sponsorship dollars would go, which is to say, we handed over a part of our budget to them, in return for their two cents.


Keep in mind, the survey was not scientific, and there was a degree of audience self-selection, i.e., the Spot.Us community.  Nonetheless, with several hundred respondents, we did get a diverse set of answers. One interesting thing to note is that while a previous survey showed a split (almost 50/50) in the “objectivity” debate this survey on public/private media showed a much more one-sided response. This might be because, as previously suspected, Spot.Us’ community overlaps with the “public media” demographic.

To begin, the majority of respondents reported that they listened to NPR (71 percent), read the news online (79 percent), or used nonprofit news sources (58 percent), while the minority reported that they received a newspaper at home (37 percent) or donated to nonprofit news media (41 percent).  From these numbers, we can see among other things that, although the majority listen to NPR or use nonprofit news sources, there is a sizeable gap between using nonprofit media and donating to them.

In response to a question about programming—“In general, how would you rate the quality of
news, arts and education programming on public media versus commercial media?—the vast majority (74 percent) said the programming on public media is of higher quality.  A mere 19 percent said the programming on public and private media is of equal quality, and only 5 percent said public programming is of lower quality.

Half way through the survey we even switched the ordering of these potential answers to ensure no undue influence. The first half of the respondents saw the answer “public media is of higher quality” first and the second half saw that answer last. In either case – the majority viewed the programming as higher quality.

When asked if they would support the creation of a public media endowment to increase funding for educational programs, arts, and investigative journalism, the respondents overwhelmingly said yes (84 percent), with only 3 percent saying no and the rest undecided.  Likewise, they would support overwhelmingly (93 percent) the creation of a matching grant program that would combine foundation grants with public funding to support innovation and investment in local news and journalism.

So far, all of this suggests that the respondents like to use nonprofit media; they believe public programming is of higher quality than private programming; they would support public endowment and matching grant programs to increase funding; however, they do not necessarily make personal donations to those ends.

The respondents, with their generally favorable view of public media, also said more conflicts arise in journalism that relies on commercial advertising than in journalism that relies on taxpayer funding.  Fifty-seven percent believed that to be true, while 12 percent said taxpayer funding creates more conflicts, and 31 percent said neither creates more conflicts and that strong firewalls between funding and journalists can prevent bias.

We also asked a few open-ended questions.

The first one was, “What should be the role of public and noncommercial media in the future of journalism?”  Below are a few anecdotal responses from Spot.Us members who gave us permission to publish their views.

Journalism should be supported by the public, but traditionally the expectation by newspaper executives has been to not ask for the public to support their product. Journalists and news executives have an obligation to build better arguments for the public to support the news. In order for that to happen, though, journalism needs to demonstrate value to readers.
Denise Lockwood

Non-profit and other alternative funding models will increasingly have to make up for the loss of advertising funded journalism. NPR has done this already but more needs to happen. There will need to be a broader range of non-profit media orgs than we have right now, and non-profits focused on substantive issues (environment, human rights, etc.) will increasingly become news providers themselves. Hopefully, some of these new iterations will be exemplars in terms of how to establish and benefit from partnerships and collaborative models. We may see more “temporary” journalism outlets as non-profit news outlets spring up and die out in this transitional period.
Melissa Wall

Journalist(s) need to figure out how to make their product of value to the community. While I love NPR and that model, nothing is wrong with a profit. Good journalism should be able to support itself, but for decades now people have ranked journalist right up there with lawyer, car salesman and politician. That has to change and we need to be honest why people feel that way.

Eddie North-Hager

Ideally, publicly funded media should focus solely on communications that are not commercially viable. However there has to be focus on what the public is interested in, not just what is in the public interest. Without remaining relevant and interesting, public media becomes irrelevant.

— Spot.Us Community Member

Another question should be what is the public’s role in public media. I think public media should be a place where people can go to tell their stories (think storycorps) where discussions can happen where people of all sides can hear each others voices (think bbc’s have your say); chicago’s vocalo is interesting in this way. Recent “pubcamps” are interesting in this way. NPR opening up its API is interesting in this way, in that they invite programmers and technologists to participate. I think the quality of public broadcasting is high, but airtime is at a premium, they should find ways to put MORE programs on the web and open up the airwaves for new talent. I think funding is an issue too. I live in Paris and stream programs live from any number of stations; I also podcast my favorites. I don’t know which station I should support, I know I want to support specific programs. I know I want to support NPR; but I don’t have a local station and I don’t know that I want one.

John Tynan

The second open-ended question was, “In the past, government has provided tax breaks to media companies, given broadcasters free licenses for public airwaves, funded PBS and NPR, and subsidized newspapers through legal ads and postal rates. What should be the government’s role in the future?”  Below, again, are a few anecdotal responses:

Regulation is necessary (else, the commercial media could say anything they wanted, regardless of effect or truth), but I don’t like the government’s involvement in the money behind broadcasting.  Things start to sound like China with its enmasse censorship of media incoming and outgoing. Free speech should remain free – free of censorship and influence. If you think publishing or reporting a story will keep the government from sending you extra funds, you aren’t likely to print it. Thus, the free press becomes the mouthpiece for a government and nothing more.

This said, I think government subsidizing of NPR and PBS is important because these are services funded by donations from watchers/listeners, and that is who they (should) have loyalty to first because that is where the money is coming from, rather than political parties or politicians.

— Kaylene Narusuke

The old models don’t work because in the 1980s, newspapers made a lot of money from ads and became very profitable, changing the expectations from the owners. Those expectations haven’t changed while the competition for ads has. Newspapers adopted the USA-Today model, dumbing down stories, writing shorter and more shallow stories. People want deep, well written stories in any format. Government agencies could support investigative reporting, specialty reporting, and reporting on the arts, but the public has to be willing to pay for responsible journalism.

— Yvonne

Government should recognize that high-quality journalism is an important part of a healthy democracy, and that well-informed citizens are more engaged and more likely to vote. Government should expand direct funding for public media beyond PBS and NPR by creating a grant program for organizations developing new kinds of public-media models.

Lila LaHood

I don’t see a problem with calculated tax breaks for the media industry whether it’s limiting taxes on the purchases of paper products or electronic devices. To me that’s no different than oil companies, banks, light manufacturing getting financial breaks or incentives to conduct business. Those who represent converged or multimedia take issue with this, citing these as out-dated mediums with failed business models. Therefore, they should not be buoyed with tax dollars and in a true capitalism, failed businesses disappear and make way for newer, better models.

— Kevin Smith

All of these things are helpful, but American journalism really needs something more revolutionary right now. Stop thinking about tax breaks and advertising and start thinking about something equal to the National Endowment for the Arts, but replace ‘Arts’ with ‘Journalism’. I hope our leaders act now before we lose the 4th Estate, and a generation of enthusiastic young journalists.

Daysha Eaton

So there you have it, the views of the Spot.Us community on public vs. private journalism.  Any of it surprise you?  Confuse you?  Bore you?  Tell us your thoughts in the comments section!

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