Ultimately, however, the market might not support some forms of journalism. For example, the number of local reporters today is at its lowest point since the 1970s, despite the fact that the U.S. population has grown by 50 percent. Research has shown a direct connection between declining local journalism and less civic engagement. If local news is a public good, it may deserve public support—perhaps in the form of government subsidies. But asking for public assistance might seem like an act of pure desperation.
4. Patrons with varying levels of beneficence
Publications that were once the crown jewels of publicly traded firms are finding refuge in the arms of affluent patrons. Many legacy titles have already landed with millionaires and billionaires, including Time (bought by Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce), Fortune (bought by Chatchaval Jiaravanon, a Thai businessman), and The Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon). Emerson Collective, an organization founded by the billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, purchased a majority share of The Atlantic in 2017.
Those nostalgic for the lucrative old days might curl their toes at the mention of a Medici-esque sponsorship model. But billionaire-supported investigative reporting is surely better than no investigative reporting at all. So what’s the matter with patronage?
A patron is a person. A person can change his or her mind—and often does. Chris Hughes junked The New Republic when losses eclipsed his idealism. Phil Anschutz snuffed out The Weekly Standard. Michael Bloomberg has made noises about selling off his political desk if he runs for president, or offloading his entire eponymous media empire, which employs several thousand people.
This sounds downright awful. But the business of news has always been unsteady. It seems safe to say that, going forward, media organizations will get by on some combination of subscription, patronage, and auxiliary revenue from sources such as events and licensed content. Whatever happens, advertising will almost certainly play a lesser role.
To understand the future of post-advertising media, let’s briefly consider its past. During a period of the early 19th century known as the “party press” era, newspapers relied on patrons. Those patrons were political parties (hence “party press”) that handed out printing contracts to their favorite editors or directly paid writers to publish vicious attacks against rivals.
That era’s journalism was hyper-political and deeply biased. But some historians believe that it was also more engaging. The number of newspapers in the United States grew from several dozen in the late 1700s to more than 1,200 in the 1830s. These newspapers experimented with a variety of journalistic styles and appeals to the public. As Gerald J. Baldasty, a professor at the University of Washington, has argued, these newspapers treated readers as a group to engage and galvanize. Perhaps as a result, voting rates soared in the middle of the 19th century to record highs.