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Abstract

The American press has sought to negotiate structural tensions between profit and principle ever since it first commercialized (Baldasty, 1992). While long-standing radical media criticism attests to an awareness of commercial media’s structural problems (McChesney and Scott, 2004; Pickard, 2015a), communication scholarship has too often ignored and accommodated the market’s effects on journalism. Given accumulating evidence of market failure, this silence is becoming untenable. It’s beyond time we clearly indict commercialism for driving journalism into the ground and begin the hard work of restructuring a media system according to democratic needs, not profit imperatives.
https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884918808955
Journalism
2019, Vol. 20(1) 154 –158
© The Author(s) 2018
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DOI: 10.1177/1464884918808955
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The violence of the market
Victor Pickard
University of Pennsylvania, USA
An invisible force oppresses journalism. It summarily dismisses reporters and decimates
newsrooms across the United States and beyond. Those still employed must labor under
increasing pressures that debase their craft. Entire regions and issues go uncovered at a
time when public service journalism is desperately needed.
This force is ‘the market’, a system of power relationships and resource allocations that
largely determines – especially in the United States where it’s mostly unregulated – what
journalism is funded and what’s allowed to perish. The commercial logic driving this
system isn’t troubled by democracy. It seeks only to profit, usually from advertising.
The American press has sought to negotiate structural tensions between profit and
principle ever since it first commercialized (Baldasty, 1992). While long-standing radical
media criticism attests to an awareness of commercial media’s structural problems
(McChesney and Scott, 2004; Pickard, 2015a), communication scholarship has too often
ignored and accommodated the market’s effects on journalism. Given accumulating evi-
dence of media failure, this silence is becoming untenable. It’s beyond time we clearly
indict commercialism for driving journalism into the ground and begin the hard work of
restructuring a media system according to democratic needs, not profit imperatives.
When commercialism trumps democracy
Although journalism’s structural attributes often escape serious scrutiny, Trump’s
election rendered visible market-driven pathologies that degrade media systems.
Privileging ratings and profits over democratic discourse, typical news coverage trivi-
alized and sensationalized the elections in horse-race style reporting, while offering
almost no substantive policy analysis whatsoever (Patterson, 2016; Pickard, 2018).
This wasn’t the result of a few bad journalists or news organizations; rather, it evi-
dences systemic problems stemming from the extreme commercialism driving our
entire news media apparatus.
Corresponding author:
Victor Pickard, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
Email: victor.pickard@asc.upenn.edu
808955JOU0010.1177/1464884918808955JournalismPickard
research-article2018
Funding Models
Pickard 155
Telltale symptoms include the following: Growing precarity in journalistic labor as
news organizations cut costs and try to do more with less; an emphasis on clickbait and
deceptive and invasive forms of advertising as news outlets chase ever-diminishing digi-
tal ad revenues. The latter encourages a reliance on corporate pay-to-play practices (such
as native advertising and sponsored content) and surveillance that exposes readers’ pri-
vacy – without their consent – to third-party data-brokers (Libert and Pickard, 2015).
But the most glaring manifestation of the market’s destruction of journalism is the
sheer loss of jobs: the newspaper industry has been reduced by more than 50% since
2001 according to the U.S. bureau of labor statistics. Creating vast ‘news deserts’
(Abernathy, 2016), newspaper closures, bankruptcies, and extreme downsizing are accel-
erated by ‘vulture capitalists’ swooping in to profit from the scraps (Reynolds, 2018).
Little evidence suggests that any commercial model will emerge to sustain the journal-
ism that democracy requires.
All democratic theories and foundational principles – including the First Amendment
itself – assume a thriving press system. The Fourth Estate’s current collapse is a profound
social problem that screams for public policy intervention. That no such intervention has
occurred stems as much from ‘discursive capture’ as it does from regulatory failure
(Pickard, 2015b). We need to reframe the debate.
Journalism crisis = market failure
A vocabulary for describing this problem has long existed. However, journalism studies’
disconnect from political economic analyses (Pickard, 2017) has led to a paucity of
scholarship focusing on commercial media’s structural constraints. One useful concept
from the political economic literature is ‘market failure’, which aptly captures journal-
ism’s demise (Baker, 2002; Pickard, 2015a). Market failure describes situations where
public goods such as news and information are given inadequate support, having detri-
mental effects on society.
The reluctance to discuss market failure, what I refer to in another context as ‘the
great evasion’ (Pickard, 2014), stems from a number of characteristics in the communi-
cation field. Scholars are loathe to sound reductive, over-deterministic, and, worst of all,
Marxist. In the field’s early years, to criticize the market was to seem un-American and
subversive, potentially hurting one’s career (Pickard, 2015a, p. 201). Silences and blinds-
pots emerged over time.
Even otherwise critical media scholars, such as Michael Schudson, have given rela-
tively little attention toward critiquing the market’s effects on journalism. In response to
Benson’s (2017) charges of de-emphasizing commercialism in his work, Schudson
(2017) states that ‘It is a mistake to see what has become of journalism in the past half
century as primarily the story of ‘market failure’’.
This is a dubious claim, especially when looking at the economics of journalism over
the past two decades. In several key respects, a history of American media is a history of
market failure (Pickard, 2015a). Commercial constraints in the press have long created
barriers for particular voices and views. The press has never fully lived up to its demo-
cratic expectations and obligations. Journalism’s public service mission and its commer-
cialism have always been in tension. Indeed, the very project of developing ethical codes
156 Journalism 20(1)
and professional standards was to prevent journalism from being overwhelmed by busi-
ness priorities (Kaplan, 2002). What we’re witnessing today is an apotheosis of those
tensions, a culmination of long-standing structural contradictions in commercial journal-
ism. But our analyses of this crisis remain deeply impoverished.
In the United States, we treat the market’s effects on journalism – as we treat the mar-
ket’s effects on nearly everything – as an inevitable force of nature beyond our control
or, at the very least, a public expression of democratic desires. This ‘market ontology’
simultaneously naturalizes the market’s violence against journalism and forecloses on
alternative models (Pickard, 2015b). Ultimately, this resignation ensures that society
won’t attempt a serious public policy response to a major social problem.
By this logic, if publics (or rather, advertisers, investors, and media owners) don’t
support certain kinds of journalism, we must let them wither. This position’s inherent
absurdity is cast into stark relief if we imagine designing our public education according
to a similar commercial logic. If students and their parents elect not to pay for civics
class, then it’s discontinued. Or consider academic labor: if scholars’ journal articles
aren’t receiving enough clicks, their research agendas must be abandoned. While it
seems preposterous in its extreme, it’s precisely this kind of savage logic that’s snuffing
out journalism in broad daylight.
The path forward: De-commercializing journalism
While journalism faces external threats ranging from oppressive state governments to
changes in audiences and technologies, the structural challenges posed by the market are
existential. Therefore, as much as possible, we should either remove news production
from the market entirely or minimize commercial pressures.
Five general approaches are conducive to such a project:
1. Establishing ‘public options’ (i.e. noncommercial/non-profit, supported by pub-
lic subsidies) such as well-funded public media and municipal broadband
networks;
2. Breaking up/preventing monopolies and oligopolies to encourage competition
and diversity, and to lessen profit-maximizing behavior;
3. Regulating news outlets via public service obligations such as impartiality and
ascertainment of society’s information needs;
4. Enabling worker control by unionizing newsrooms, facilitating employee-owned
institutions, and establishing professional standards that buffer journalism from
business operations;
5. Community governance of newsrooms, especially as newspapers transition to
non- or low-profit structures that are incentivized by tax laws.
I discuss the politics, discourses, and policies required to actualize these alternatives
elsewhere (Pickard, 2015a), but establishing this noncommercial vision as a long-term
normative goal is in itself a worthwhile project.
Of course, removing commercial imperatives won’t solve all journalism-related prob-
lems. Deeply embedded cultural orientations, hierarchies, and routines – both within
Pickard 157
newsrooms and in the broader society – will persist after removing journalism from the
market. But de-commercialization is an important first step toward democratization. It
opens the door for a journalism that’s universally accessible, but attentive to different
global contexts and cultural particularities.
Salvaging a non-profit model from the ashes of market-driven journalism goes far
beyond nostalgia or seeking to recover a golden age that never existed. This isn’t about
finding the right business model to preserve the status quo. Commercialism lies at the
heart of this crisis, and removing it could be transformative. Any path toward reinventing
journalism must acknowledge that the market is its destructor, not savior.
The ravages of the market escape the same level of alarm than other risks facing jour-
nalism today. Without minimizing the life-and-death threats to journalists around the
world, we must also confront this more subtle violence. Communication scholars have
an important role to play in clarifying the structural roots of this social problem and
expanding the political imaginary for potential futures. We must identify alternatives and
help chart a path toward actualizing them.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.
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... Sustainable funding is one of the most pressing issues, if not the most pressing issue of modern journalism (e.g. Pickard, 2019). How news media funds itself will have a profound effect on the topics it covers, the quality of its coverage and the relationship it pursues with its audiences. ...
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This contribution is a recording of the CAMRI research seminar held at the University of Westminster on November 19, 2014, in which Victor Pickard presented his book "America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform": http://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/politics-international-relations/american-government-politics-and-policy/americas-battle-media-democracy-triumph-corporate-libertarianism-and-future-media-reform Why do American media have so few public interest regulations? How did the American media system become dominated by a few corporations, and why are structural problems like market failures routinely avoided in media policy discourse? By tracing the answers to many of these questions back to media policy battles in the 1940s, Victor Pickard explains how this happened and why it matters today. Drawing from extensive archival research, the book uncovers the American media system’s historical roots and normative foundations. His book charts the rise and fall of a forgotten media reform movement to recover alternatives and paths not taken. As much about the present and future as it is about the past, the book proposes policies for remaking media based on democratic values for the digital age. Victor Pickard is an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously he taught media studies at NYU and the University of Virginia, and he worked on media policy in Washington, D.C. as a Senior Research Fellow at the media reform organization Free Press, the public policy think tank the New America Foundation, and Congresswoman Diane Watson’s office. He has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on the history and political economy of media institutions and media reform activism. His op-eds on media policy debates and the future of journalism have appeared in news outlets like The Guardian, The Seattle Times, The Huffington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the editor (with Robert McChesney) of Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights, and the author of America’s Battle for Media Democracy. He tweets at @VWPickard.
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How did the American media system become what it is today? Why do American media have so few public interest regulations compared with other democratic nations? How did the system become dominated by a few corporations, and why are structural problems like market failures routinely avoided in media policy discourse? By tracing the answers to many of these questions back to media policy battles in the 1940s, this book explains how this happened and why it matters today. Drawing from extensive archival research, the book uncovers the American media system’s historical roots and normative foundations. It charts the rise and fall of a forgotten media reform movement to recover alternatives and paths not taken. As much about the present and future as it is about the past, the book proposes policies for remaking media based on democratic values for the digital age.
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Introduction 1. Partisan news in the early reconstruction era: African-Americans in the vortex of political publicity 2. Economic engines of partisanship 3. Rituals of partisanship: American journalism in the gilded age 4. The two revolutions in urban newspaper economics, 1873 and 1888 5. 1896 and the political revolution in Detroit journalism Conclusion Methodological appendix.
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The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century traces the major transformation of newspapers from a politically based press to a commercially based press in the nineteenth century. Gerald J. Baldasty argues that broad changes in American society, the national economy, and the newspaper industry brought about this dramatic shift. Increasingly in the nineteenth century, news became a commodity valued more for its profitablility than for its role in informing or persuading the public on political issues. Newspapers started out as highly partisan adjuncts of political parties. As advertisers replaced political parties as the chief financial support of the press, they influenced newspapers in directing their content toward consumers, especially women. The results were recipes, fiction, contests, and features on everything from sports to fashion alongside more standard news about politics. Baldasty makes use of nineteenth-century materials—newspapers from throughout the era, manuscript letters from journalists and politicians, journalism and advertising trade publications, government reports—to document the changing role of the press during the period. He identifies three important phases: the partisan newspapers of the Jacksonian era (1825-1835), the transition of the press in the middle of the century, and the influence of commercialization of the news in the last two decades of the century.