The Crusading Journalist
Journalism professor Neil Henry argues that the decline in the newspaper industry caused by a parasitic Internet has gone far enough. Google has a duty to support journalists, he argues, because newsmen uphold a public trust.
I see a world where corporations such as Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises, all this ultimately at the expense of legions of professional reporters across America, now out of work because their employers in "old" media could not afford to pay them. ...
It is no longer acceptable for Google corporate executives to say that they don't practice journalism, they only work to provide links to "content providers." Journalism is not just a matter of jobs, and dollars and cents lost. It is a public trust vital to a free society. It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists, should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism's plight. Is it possible for Google to somehow engage and support the traditional news industry and important local newspapers more fully, for example, to become a vital part of possible solutions to this crisis instead of a part of the problem?
Is it not possible for Google and other information corporations to offer more direct support to schools of journalism to help ensure that this craft's values and skills are passed on to the next generation?
You have to admit it's an interesting argument. But what exactly is the argument that Neil Henry is making? Near as I can tell it is an assertion that news gathering and responsible editing constitute a public good, like national defense, or as a civilian intelligence gathering system. And that in the past it was formerly a private good, in that you couldn't read the news unless you bought a paper, which allowed providers to charge for it. But at any rate, it's a public good now and one that the media industry can't sustainably bill for, because the Internet keeps giving it away for a cut-rate price. Therefore to keep the whole journalistic enterprise turning over, some means must be found to extract money from the leeches of the Internet to support journalism and the schools which will continue to produce journalists.
Clearly information itself has many characteristics of a public good, "in the sense that each individual's consumption of such a good leads to no subtractions from any other individual's consumption of that good," but up until the time that media organizations lost control of the distribution they could treat it differently and charge for access to it.
Even today and into the forseeable future, there will be no untrammeled public access to everything. Copyright law, archival bulk, latency and other considerations can be used to hold material back, or at least be held back for a time, available only to those willing to pay. But at all events, information being what it is, all attempts to charge for it means differentiating between different flows, much to the chagrin of those who advocate Net Neutrality. "Activists fear that telecom companies may also use this power to discriminate between traffic types, charging tolls on content from some content providers (i.e. websites, services, protocols), particularly competitors. Their worry is that failure to pay the tolls would result in poor service or no service for certain websites or certain types of applications." Although this criticism has been directed largely against proposals to provide different levels of bandwidth, it should be equally valid against attempts to provide different levels of information access.
But that brings us back to the question of whether journalism is really a "public trust". Even if its most ardent advocates will admit that it is -- or at least was -- also a business. Like Google. Oh wait ...