I can't do justice to this series in a blog posting, but I want to underline its importance relative to the subject of this blog -- knowledge for development.
News is current information. There are many kinds of news, but here we are mainly concerned with the information needed for social and economic development. That information is primarily collected by journalists, organized by editorial staffs, and disseminated by media. Journalists and editors are employed by newspapers, television networks, news agencies, magazines, etc.
With the rise of the World Wide Web, we also have "citizen journalists". Their role is evolving. I would note, however, that on the one hand few of these have the skills, training, connections, support, or legitimacy of professional news men. On the other hand, systems would not work if anyone with an Internet connection could feel free at any time to take the time of any news-maker to answer questions.
News gathering and dissemination requires resources. Journalists and editors must be paid, and the costs of dissemination -- printing and distributing newspapers and magazines, broadcasting TV and radio programs, even distributing information via the Internet -- must be covered. We find a wide variety of means used to provide these resources:
* fees (e.g. newspaper subscriptions and news stand prices)I note that foundations provide support, which by law has to be of a kind consistent with the philanthropic purposes of the organizations, which is free from governmental control. Moreover, some of the best newspapers in the nation have been privately owned, often by families which were strongly motivated by a sense of public responsibility. Typically news is bundled with other information services, and the bundle is financed. The result is complex.
* sale of advertizing
* public subsidies financed out of general taxes
* public subsidies financed through taxes on the medium (e.g. TV receiver tades)
* donations (donations to public radio, in kind services on university stations)
When television first became popular, TV news was not self-financed but seen as a public service, required by broadcast regulators in return for the license to utilize broadcast spectrum. The overall revenues from the complete portfolio of entertainment and news broadcasts were used to finance the overall costs of the portfolio; that is there was a cross subsidy from the profitable entertainment programs to the required news programs. Later it was found that the magazine format could be profitable, and more recently that the nightly news could be made profitable.
Newspapers, too, bundle many kinds of information, and use the total flow of revenue to finance the total cost. The average consumer makes a decision that the benefits obtained by the purchase of the bundle justifies the expenditure, as the average advertiser judges that the benefits obtained justify the cost of place the ad.
New technology changes the balance. The situation is not new. The development of better presses and railroads made national magazines a force. The rise of radio news affected newspapers, as later the rise of television news affected radio news and newspapers. Now the rise of the WWW is affecting other news media. Importantly, as the Internet becomes the medium of choice for classified advertising, the technological change is eating away at the traditional revenue sources for newspapers.
The stock market is dubious about the long term earnings potential of newspapers, and so investors are requiring large current returns on investments. While newspapers are very profitable at the moment, the demand for ever increasing profit margins is resulting in cutbacks, including cutbacks on journalistic and editorial staff. Many newspapers are, in addition to moving into broadcast journalism and Internet journalism, focusing more on local news. TV journalism in the United States, too, is changing focus and searching for appropriate responses to changes in audience, audience preference, and resource bases.
Of particular interest in last night's program was the discussion of the "national papers". Only a few newspapers in the United States seek to have a nation-wide audience, and to cover in depth the news most needed by those interested in the great issues of national policy -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today come to mind. The Los Angeles Times, which had been aspiring to that role, is currently (according to Frontline) in danger of being dropped back to a local or regional focus. (There are of course other good papers in the United States. The Boston Globe, the International Herald Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor and the Miami Herald come to mind. Moreover, it is now possible to read news from other countries and continents online, and to access foreign radio via streaming audio and television via cable and streaming video.)
Still, the series raises critical questions. How are we to reorganize our institutions to be sure that journalists in sufficient numbers are doing the investigative reporting needed to uncover the information, in the face of newsroom cutbacks? How are we to institutionalize to assure the quality and relevance of the information we utilize in the face of editorial cutbacks on mainstream media, and in moving to new and untested media? How are we to re-institutionalize the packaging of news, especially news related to social and economic development, with other information into useful bundles? What balance of different sources of financing are we to institutionalize in order to pay for it all, while assuring fair and accurate reporting?
The MacBride Report, published by UNESCO in 1980, addresses many of these questions. As I understand its history, the wire services were especially upset that an analysis of these issues in different nations might challenge their role and authority, and united in opposition to the report. The Reagan administration in the United States and the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom, encouraged by the Heritage Foundation, quit UNESCO in part as a response to the MacBride Report.
Perhaps it is time to dust off the product of a committee that included a couple of Nobel Prize winners, and reread it. It is certainly a time that this issue be considered in depth, through a national dialog.