Helping journalism can harm it

Insights Newsletter
17 April, 2015

For those of you who don’t have access to the Kiwi Journalists Association’s Facebook page, a heated discussion has flared up after it was revealed Campbell Live may be axed in favour of more entertainment-focused programming.

The discussion centred around whether this is symptomatic of a failed business model, where companies like MediaWorks are seen to prioritise profit over the provision of a good that has positive spill-over benefits to a democratic society.

Heated might not be the best description, since the majority of the association’s members appear to agree on the solution: government needs to subsidise news production. Moral indignation fits better.

Regardless, they may have a point. Journalism has public good aspects to it – the threat that an investigative journalist uncovers a rort or corruption helps to discipline politicians, which provides benefits even to those who do not help to pay for it by watching or reading. Many people might free-ride rather than contribute.

However, there are other factors that need to be considered before we open the public purse to media organisations.

First is whether the potential collapse of one show could be regarded as symptomatic of a media market failure. Yes Campbell Live produces a particular kind of advocacy journalism, but many other channels offer current affairs and news shows as well, not to forget the print, online and radio mediums. And opinions surely vary on the relative merits of the different programmes: one viewer’s public good could be another’s public bad.

Further, that over 70,000 people signed a petition to save the show suggests there is awareness of the value Campbell Live offers. If those viewers who love the show contributed to a crowd-funding campaign, could that not save it?

Lastly, government already subsidises media via NZ on Air, an autonomous Crown entity that funds various television and radio programmes, including Radio New Zealand. The public good of journalism is already being publicly supported.

That the media sector is in a state of decline in New Zealand is unquestionable amid the digital disruption of old business models. But we need to be cautious that the tools we employ to fix the situation do not make it worse. If the problem is too little investigation and analysis in the news, that is what we need more of when defining the problem and possible solutions.

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