Markets and Journalism

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A slightly pointless discussion over whether or not journalists are subject to "merit pay" standards takes a turn for the interesting when Jason Zengerle rephrases his view as "I don't think journalists are totally immune from market forces." And obviously we aren't. On the other hand, it really is noteworthy how much of the more prestigious journalism out there is produced in a manner that's somewhat shielded from market forces. The American Prospect, National Review, The Nation, Mother Jones, The Washington Monthly, Harper's and Reason are all run as non-profits. The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The Weekly Standard are run as non-profitable "for profit" organizations. The Washington Post (and Newsweek), The New York Times (and The Boston Globe), and until recently The Wall Street Journal were profitable but controlled by journalism-minded families willing to eschew some degree of profit-maximization in order to pursue some larger goals. NPR and its affiliates are a somewhat complicated non-profit arrangement. And among prestigious foreign outlets with a substantial American audience you see the BBC as a public broadcasting endeavor and The Guardian (and affiliated publications) is run by the Scott Trust.

On top of that, of course, a lot of people writing on serious topics will, at least for some portions of their careers, benefit from fellowships or think tank gigs that help subsidize their work.

All of which puts something like Jason's followup contention that journalism is a mostly meritocratic endeavor into perspective. On the pundit side, while it's true that to succeed you generally need to do "good work," the sense in which it has to be good has less to do with whether or not there's a large audience for your work than with whether or not your work is pleasing to potential funders, be they donors to non-profit publications, owners of vanity publications, or people in a position to hand out grants or fellowships.

Obviously, this sort of thing isn't like living under Communism so maybe you want to call it a form of being subject to market forces, but it's pretty different from being in a field where success requires you to meet some kind of objective standard of performance. Bill Kristol has had a very successful career in journalism as an editor and a pundit, but it's a career whose foundation is Rupert Murdoch's patronage rather than the objective merits of his work or some public clamor for a weekly neoconservative magazine. There are probably tons of people who could run a glossy magazine with the Weekly Standard's budget and a slightly larger audience that, nonetheless, couldn't get off the ground because nobody wanted to pay for it.

Photo by Flickr user Will Hybrid used under a Creative Commons license

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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