BBC.com originally forwarded visitors to BBC.co.uk, but before long, the British news service will have a home away from home in the U.S. Launching soon, BBC.com is aimed at expanding its American audience, and will feature “U.S.-focused articles on politics and general news,” according to AdAge. Is this now the time for American journalism to follow suit and start its own publicly-supported press service?
Yes, argued Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University and First Amendment scholar, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week. “The financial viability of the U.S. press has been shaken to its core,” he explains. Indeed, while newspaper after newspaper folds stateside, across the pond the BBC and other government-funded services are rapidly growing. “We tripled ad revenue last year from the year before, and we plan on doubling this year,” said Miranda Creswell, senior VP of BBC.com, which reportedly receives 30% of its 57.8 million worldwide viewers from the U.S. “We were listening to what advertisers and the audience was telling us in terms of what they needed, and the launch of BBC.com is a response to those needs.”
Though the BBC operates through public funding, advertisements seen only by the site’s foreign visitors have helped drive the service’s growth. “Such news comes to us courtesy of British citizens who pay a TV license fee to support the BBC and taxes to support the World Service,” writes Bollinger. “The reliable public funding structure, as well as a set of professional norms that protect editorial freedom, has yielded a highly respected and globally powerful journalistic institution.”
But can the news be trusted if the state helps pay for it?
Interestingly, Bollinger contends that our largest threat to journalism isn’t from government abuse but the corporate sector. “To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company’s environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment,” he argues. “This reinforces the point that all media systems, whether advertiser-based or governmental, come with potential editorial risks.”
He concludes, “In today’s rapidly globalizing and interconnected world, other countries are developing a strong media presence. In addition to the BBC, there is China’s CCTV and Xinhua news, as well as Qatar’s Al Jazeera. [Our] system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters.”
Wednesday however, Megan Garber of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab may have offered an argument for a continued free-market system. Writing on the viability of long-form journalism on the Web, Garber highlighted Slate.com, which has built a system to support ambitious online reporting. The key to Slate’s success isn’t expanding its audience, as you might expect, but rather, finding the perfect audience. “Our job is not necessarily to build Slate into a magazine that has 100 million readers,” Slate editor David Plotz told Garber. “It’s to make sure we have 2 million or 5 million or 8 million of the right readers–readers who are the smartest, most engaged, most influential, most media-literate people around.”
Probably the best example of an audience-refined digital news site is Politico, which has built its service around attracting the most influential people in Washington. Politico is known for its inside-the-Beltway newsletters, such as Mike Allen’s Playbook, which alone earns the organization $780,000 in annual ad-revenue.
So does Garber offer a solution to the Internet’s cannibalization of news media? Is a narrowed and refined audience the key to creating a financially-viable free press? Or does the U.S. need a BBC-like service, as Bollinger believes, to provide “the news we need” with “full journalistic independence”?
With newspaper ad-revenue dropping more than 44% in the last four years and with even big-name papers on bankruptcy-watch, it’s hard to imagine a case where the free press will still be adequately able to serve a nation without the support of its government.