Ed Wasserman, Knight professor of journalism at Washington and Lee, wrote a column in The Miami Herald examining the ideas bubbling up on how to pay for journalism. He suggests one solution: A pay-as-you-go system with tiny fees for what you read online.
Problem is, information online these days has a tendency to escape from its original source, and new ways of reading and aggregating surface every week. Protecting one’s content from others online could require huge overhead (lawyers and money).
Wasserman also eyes longingly the idea of public subsidies or the BBC method of funding. He says:
“The knee-jerk notion that the First Amendment forbids public support rests on a misreading of our own history of media subsidies, from creation of the postal system to invention of the Internet. Mechanisms could be devised to make funding automatic — fees tacked onto Internet hookup charges, for instance, like the license fees on TV sets that British viewers pay to support their BBC — and insulate news producers from political meddling.”
That model has problems too, such as large BBC taxicab bills and a reluctance to open up the books to the public. Reminds me of the old stories about reporters who accumulated tons of parking tickets until the “bean counters” at work refused to pay for the tickets anymore.
Concerns about public funding don’t just include government meddling in the journalism, but rather the possibility that the journalism organizations could become more like parts of some governments: bloated, opaque and inefficient.
Update 1/12/08: Wasserman’s original column is no longer easily available online. So another quote from him, via Greg Linch, to flesh out Wasserman’s idea:
“Maybe the solution isn’t to escape the market, but to empower it. Modern computing offers unparalleled capacities to track and calculate. Imagine a vast menu of news and commentary offered to you ad-free for pennies per item, the charges micro-billed, added up and presented like a utility bill at month’s end. The money that journalism providers got would depend on their audience.”