Game Changers 2020 Essay Series: The Real Value of News

The Real Value of News

Neil Chase, CEO, CALmatters

Philanthropy steps in where markets fail, embracing a vital community resource.

In the 20th century, the newspaper business was a business.

With a monopoly on everything from city council coverage and sports scores to movie listings and grocery coupons, the local paper played an essential role. It was a watchdog, a bulletin board, a pillar of the community, and a business that served every other business in town. Kids delivered newspapers to millions of people every morning

It was a healthy, profitable, important institution. But we know what innovation does to a monopoly.

At the dawn of the 21st century, much of the newspaper’s turf suddenly vanished. It was no longer the only place to learn about last night’s meeting, buy a car, find an apartment, share an obituary or track the high school team. Advertisers discovered more efficient ways to reach smartly targeted audiences. Consumers found new ways to learn what’s happening across the street and around the world. Billions of dollars in revenue, and many thousands of jobs, disappeared in just a few years, as an inefficient industry was brought to its knees.

That sweeping, dramatic, painful change did not eliminate the need for journalism. And it is by no means dead.

At Santa Clara County’s oldest business, The Mercury News, talented professionals still dedicate themselves every day to serving Silicon Valley and do amazing work. In Half Moon Bay and Santa Rosa, wonderful local leaders stepped in to buy and preserve the hometown newspapers.

But none of these newsrooms can cover the breadth of communities and topics they once did. Without aggressive state and local news reporting, uninformed citizens don’t manage societies well Governments and important local institutions become inefficient, and at times corrupt. Some people aren’t treated fairly. Rights are not protected. Outcomes are not measured. Society doesn’t function as well.

When market failure threatens an important community institution, caring people and organizations step in.

That’s what’s happening today in journalism, with leadership from individual donors, community foundations, local corporations and national philanthropies. The Knight Foundation is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in journalism, as are Google and Facebook. Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective is both a funder and a publisher. Issue-specific organizations fund journalism that broadens the understanding of those issues, while keeping their hands off the editorial decisions to ensure that readers can trust the work. At CALmatters, where our nonprofit newsroom covers state politics and policy, we’re supported by every thing from $5 reader donations to generous six-figure grants. We use that support to create journalism that’s given away to every other news organization in the state so it can serve as many Californians as possible.

Journalism will still happen, and will be effective, because of the generosity of those who support it and because of the new spirit of collaboration among the newsrooms. We can all do our part by donating to nonprofit news organizations and buying subscriptions to for-profit ones.

May 17, 2019