Media Funding

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
24 April, 2020

Last week, the diligent Epidemic Response Committee was swarmed by a gaggle of head-honcho media types each making their case for a handout.

Plenty of other sectors had their time before the committee, but in hour-long slots before being bumped off by the next sector spokesperson. Only the media got to dominate an entire session. I guess that’s the power of owning the megaphone.

Only those living under a rock don’t know the media is struggling financially. But what about other dying industries? They don’t have a megaphone. The world has moved on from them, too. Shouldn’t they get some support?

Media is a bit different than a normal business. While there was never any public interest in propping up the buggywhip-makers against the onslaught of the automobile, there is a public interest in the existence of credible and rigorous journalism.

The problem is that too few seem willing to pay for rigorous reporting for enough of it to be produced. The loss of classified ads and the resulting dip in revenue are both symptoms of that real underlying issue: there is no particular reason for people to pay attention to current affairs.

And it gets worse. If we think the market doesn’t provide enough healthcare, the government can boost its funding. Yet since one of the main benefits of rigorous journalism is to watch over the government, public subsidy might come with dangerous strings.

How then to fund the news?

In other places, rich weirdos own newspapers – sometimes out of public-spiritedness, sometimes as vanity projects. We can imagine the fun if Bob Jones bought one of the media outlets, Gareth Morgan bought the other, and both used the space in their daily editorial sections to slag each other off. That would at least be entertaining.

But we can imagine other alternatives too.

Some commercial radio stations encouraged people to listen by running regular lotteries. They’d dial up a random phone number and if the person answering could name the last song played by the station, the lucky listener would get a hundred dollars.

Perhaps the government could set up a $36.5 million budget line for prizes. Every day, one lucky Kiwi gets the call. If they answer that day’s question about the key events of the week – with the different news editors supplying the questions – they win that day’s $100,000 prize.

It’s a lot cheaper than other kinds of bailouts. And it could encourage people to start paying attention.

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