One of the arguments that often comes up in discussions about how to pay for news is that journalism is a “public good.” I was thinking about this last night when I read Rebuild Local News president Steve Waldman’s latest piece in The Atlantic, in which he observes that journalism often saves more money than it costs. He cites some notable examples, including a ProPublica investigation that led to $435 million in fines and reporting by MLK50 in Memphis, Tennessee, that resulted in the cancellation of about $12 million in debt owed by hospital patients.
This is the very definition of a “public good.” When economists talk about a public good, they mean something similar, but not identical, to what we lay people mean. You and I might simply mean that a public good is good for the public, as tough, ethical journalism surely is. But what economists mean is that it’s also something that benefits the public whether they pay for it or not. Here’s how Investopedia puts it: “The two main criteria that distinguish a public good are that it must be non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Non-rivalrous means that the goods do not dwindle in supply as more people consume them; non-excludability means that the good is available to all citizens.” Thus, a public good carries with it a free rider problem.
This is what I wrote about public goods in my 2013 book “The Wired City”:
In economic terms, a public good is something that benefits everyone, whether each of us pays for it or not — which, perversely, creates incentives for us not to pay. That is why we must pay taxes rather than make voluntary contributions to fund national defense. “Public good” is a phrase that also comes up a lot in discussions of why it is so difficult to fix the news business. For example, the local newspaper reports that members of the school committee are taking bribes from a bus company with a record of safety violations. As a result of that reporting, those committee members are removed and prosecuted. Schoolchildren are safer. Yet people who don’t buy or even read the paper benefit just as much as those who do. Thus, there needs to be a way to pay or such journalism outside the for-profit, advertiser-based context that worked reasonably well until a few years ago. Seen in this light, community journalism is a public good that deserves funding beyond what the market is willing to pay.
The problem is that when tax money is used to fund journalism, it can create a conflict that interferes with the independence needed for a news organization to fulfill its role as a monitor of power. Watchdog reporting is difficult when the institutions you’re holding to account are also providing you with the money you need to operate. That makes journalism very different from the fire department, schools or public works, all of which may accept public money without any such conflicts.
In his Atlantic piece, Waldman advocates for tax credits for local publishers and advertisers, a variation of an idea that he’s been promoting for several years that was recently revived in the form of the Community News and Small Business Support Act, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Now, tax credits are sufficiently arm’s-length that they don’t present much of a threat to journalistic independence. But the very fact that such indirect government assistance is being talked about helps illustrate why news isn’t just good for the public — it’s also a public good in every sense of the term.
At one time there was so much advertising money supporting journalism that we didn’t need to think about such things. These days, news has morphed from a highly profitable enterprise into a classic public good. It makes sense for us to find ways to fund that public good as long as we can do so without undermining the very qualities that make it a public good in the first place.