Can We Save Media?by Ross Barkan
Words and Money
In David Mitchell’s postmodern epic Cloud Atlas, a future historian interviews a sentient clone before she is to be executed. The clone artfully defends her actions against the state, exasperating the indoctrinated historian who cannot understand why anyone would want to rebel against a society that celebrates hyperconsumerism, capitalism, and authoritarianism. After the clone makes a particularly salient point, the once dispassionate historian blurts out, “Corpocracy isn’t just another political system that will come and go—corpocracy is the natural order, in harmony with human nature.”
Corpocracy, as the name bluntly implies, is a system built by, dominated by, and catered to corporations. Take a walk down your block and count the number of corporate establishments. When your finger gets tired, pick up Andre Schiffrin’s Words and Money.
Schiffrin, the former executive editor of Pantheon Books and the founder of the not-for-profit publisher the New Press, has been heavily involved with the publishing industry for a half century. The son of a distinguished French publisher, Schiffrin, an American, is perhaps best known for The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, published by Verso Books a decade ago. When The Business of Books arrived in 2001, there were no e-book readers, Amazon and Google were scrappy, up-and-coming companies, and social networking meant meeting the regional director for lunch so you could score a promotion at the office. Yet despite these differences, the publishing industry is battling the same cancer that it was then: overriding corporate influence.
Schiffrin writes in Words and Money that “publishing was seen as a profession, not a business. People who were interested in making money did not choose it as a career. Though of course publishers needed to make money to make enough to keep their companies going, none expected the business to be wildly profitable.” He shows that throughout most of the 20th century, publishing houses expected to make a three to four percent profit annually, and it was not until the houses were purchased by large media conglomerates that publishers came to expect huge windfalls, shooting for as much as 15 percent profits and 10 percent annual growth. As the economy continues to bleed and publishers lose profits, the pressure is increased to produce few books based almost exclusively on the highest sale potential.
The antidote to all of this, from Schiffrin’s perspective, is a more European ethos—Schiffrin believes in the independent publishers and bookstores who will publish and promote the intellectually “important” works (at Pantheon, Schiffrin introduced philosophers and writers such as Michel Foucault and Boris Pasternak to American audiences). Since he is no idealist, Schiffrin believes governmental aid is vital to sustaining these enterprises. He hopes to see something like the CNL (Centre National du Livre) in America. CNL is a French national organization that provides financial assistance to publishers, bookstores, and libraries, operating on an annual budget of 37 million euros. In this age of economic austerity, it appears unlikely the U.S. government would finance such an operation. While the American government in the past, especially during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, had sought to provide financial backing for artists, American politicians generally have been less willing to throw their weight behind artistic endeavors. In the hyper local game that American politics has always been, congressmen will balk at sending too much money the publishers’ and booksellers’ way, lest they be branded as overly-liberal subversives, a blanket label still attached to many in the literary world.
The decline of newspapers is Schiffrin’s other great concern. Though he spends a chapter extolling the virtues of independent movie houses and bemoaning the profit-driven multiplex system that rules American cinema, he devotes a significant portion of his lucid 114 pages to the collapse and possible resurgence of the newspaper business. He acknowledges that the availability of free content on the Internet has hastened newspapers’ descent, but rightfully blames the newspaper industry, too. After all, “the gradual decline in circulation and, in the U.S., the constant pressure to maintain unrealistically high profits, have resulted in less coverage, fewer pages, and fewer foreign correspondents.”
What can we do to fix this? Schiffrin has several ideas, but they all come back to an idea that journalism purists might wince at: making most newspapers not-for-profit entities while also seeking financial assistance from the state. Journalism professors like Leonard Downie, Jr., of the Columbia University School of Journalism, are reluctant to accept such an idea, fearing that public aid would corrupt the newsgathering process, while failing to acknowledge that corporations like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation often do that already. The New York Times has been able to run investigative articles funded by a new not-for-profit called ProPublica, founded with a grant of $30 million by California billionaires to enable papers to publish stories ignored by the mainstream press. Not-for-profits have been less necessary in Europe because European governments are generally more willing to offer subsidies to the press.
Schiffrin dares to ask why newspapers must be financially dependent on advertising revenue, arguing that “advertisers’ pressure on media to reach the widest possible number of customers has been responsible for a continuous and systematic lowering of content.” Eighteenth century newspapers were devoid of ads and early newspapers received government aid through favorable postage rates. Journalism, to survive, cannot be wholly independent, and must seek a helping hand somewhere. Advertisers, despite their vaunted status, cannot alone give citizens a more financially independent or more transparent press.
To find the revenue that newspapers need, the 8 trillion pound elephant in the room must be addressed. Google, as Schiffrin points out, had a value in 2008 of $200 billion, more than enough to endow every newspaper in the country. Google’s ad revenue should be taxed, ultimately, because the newspaper-generated news it features on its Web pages still attracts so much of its traffic (people don’t go to Google for Google’s own sake, after all). Siva Vaidhyanathan makes a similar argument in his 2011 book The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry), contending that state institutions should strive to finance a global digital library open to everyone, a library not at the mercy of advertisers or Google’s search algorithms that determine what content is featured on page one. Taxes on advertising revenue are far from unheard of: France taxes television ads to support its film industry.
It is disconcerting that so many individuals continue to be blinded by the idea that corporations like Google are neutral and benevolent. Does it really make sense to allow Google to make billions off of news it does not generate? Similarly, should a giant like Amazon be able to dictate what, exactly, publisher and author royalties should be, even though it did not produce the book? Schiffrin tempers his solutions with the reality that our economic climate won’t allow for these media issues to be properly tackled.
Journalism, as we all know, cannot cure all ills plaguing modern man. Yet, as Schiffrin tactfully shows, a free and financially sound press provides a crucial check against the abuses of government and private enterprise. Will the American government ever grant the press the same bailout it bestowed upon Wall Street? Even Schiffrin would admit that the chances aren’t too good. In this military-industrial era in which America seems permanently entrenched, money is for bullets, not words.