Endangered Ecosystem

April 1, 2010 • Ethics and Quality • by

“Wishful thinking” was mentioned several times during the Medienhaus Vienna conference, where experts from all over the world fervently discussed the future of journalism.

Phil Meyer, the doyen of American journalism research, puts great hope in the public’s willingness to donate and the philanthropical gestures of media financers, as they’ll become key in helping journalism survive when it can no longer be financed by streams of advertising income flowing to publishing houses. Foreseeably, billions of advertising dollars will instead flood to search engines like Google or social networks like Facebook and Youtube. Many once-promising advertising markets dissolved into thin air as classifieds were offered for free online. Alan Rusbridger, who, as editor-in-chief of the Guardian, is counted among the pioneers of high-quality online journalism, hopes for subsidies as “ultima ratio” for suffering news sites.  Yet when it comes down to whether the government should dig into the pockets of citizens already suffering from high tax burdens and government debt, or whether public broadcasting fees should be redistributed, Rusbridger remains cautiously open.

Meanwhile, in its latest annual report, the Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals that newsrooms in the U.S. shrank by around 15,000 journalists –  more than one-fourth of the news positions that existed in 2007. Newspaper publishing houses have since saved $1.6 billion in staff expenses. But let’s be clear about this: Massive downsizing represents an existential threat to the journalistic “ecosystem,” as even the best newsrooms remain heavily dependent on the performances of thousands of other newsrooms. Such enormous cutbacks simply cannot be compensated by donations or  subsidies. Hence, I’ll contrast Meyer‘s and Rusbridger‘s wishful thinking with my own idea: Instead of offering online for free what they still hope to sell in a printed version, publishing houses should begin behaving rationally, convincing online readers that journalistic quality and independence cannot be guaranteed for free in the long run. The mere concept of  pay walls is an absurdity. Would it ever occur to a baker to consider a pay wall between him and his customers, simply because he expects fair, adequate compensation in exchange for delivered merchandise?

Published in Die Furche, April 1st, 2010, by Stephan Russ-Mohl

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