In a recent post I shared the financial success stories of two of my favourite bloggers – Juan Cole raised more than $50,000 in December in order to continue his work, and Andrew Sullivan raised more than $300,000 in one day so he could become independent. I used this information to postulate that the future of quality online media could be in reader support rather than the current loss-making advertising model. If readers can keep Juan Cole going, why couldn’t they keep other high quality sources of information in business? But this possibility requires not only community engagement but trust, a commodity not usually associated with the mainstream media.
There is a common internet adage that states “if you aren’t paying for it, then you are the product”. This saying is normally associated with the likes of Facebook and Google; ostensibly free products that make money through the abuse of data unwittingly given over by users. But the media also deserves a saying like this. Something like “if you aren’t paying for it, someone else is.” And this should be followed up the question “and what do they want for it?”
A recent example of how money corrupts the media is the resignation of Greg Sandoval from the prominent technology website CNET. Sandoval resigned from CNET after CBS (CNET’s parent company) forced CNET to change the winner of one of their annual awards because the intended winner was engaged in a lawsuit with CBS. Other, more serious, examples include questions over NBC’s support of the War in Iraq (NBC is owned by GE, a major weapons manufacturer), that David Gregory (the host of Meet The Press) failed to challenge Newt Gingrich over comments made about Boeing (Boeing is a sponsor of Meet the Press), that media companies around the world refuse to take up campaign finance reform as a serious issue (lots of advertising space is sold during elections), and that coverage of foreign affairs by the likes of Russia Today, Al Jazeera and Telesur often reflects that of their benefactor countries. Even this post is an example (I fund this blog, I want to be a journalist, and I am currently trying to persuade you to start funding the media).
Whether or not consumer funding will be the future of the media, it should be. Whether it is governments, companies, or individuals giving money to media companies, it is always considered an investment. Something that requires a return on investment. When it comes to companies, the expected return is eyeballs, influence and good coverage. When it comes to governments, the expected return is also influence and good coverage. But consumers want nothing more than a good product. Only when media outlets are completely beholden to the consumer can they expect this product. We need to start funding the media ourselves. After all, if we aren’t funding it, someone else is.