Tag: journalism

A Free Press Only Counts if It’s on Dead Trees

newspapersThe Associated Press reports:

The federal government is wading into deliberations over the future of journalism as printed newspapers, television stations and other traditional media outlets suffer from Americans’ growing reliance on the Internet.

With the media business in a state of economic distress as audiences and advertisers migrate online, the Federal Trade Commission began a two-day workshop Tuesday to examine the profound challenges facing media companies and explore ways the government can help them survive.

Media executives taking part are looking for a new business model for an industry that is watching traditional advertising revenue dry up, without online revenue growing quickly enough to replace it. Government officials want to protect a critical pillar of democracy—a free press.

“News is a public good,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said. “We should be willing to take action if necessary to preserve the news that is vital to democracy.”

Language mavens, observe the lede: The federal government is “wading into deliberations.” I infer that in Newspeak, this may mean something like “trying to spend more money.” Perhaps I should look forward to the federal government wading into deliberations over my salary? (On second thought, maybe not.)

Some of the proposals aimed at saving traditional journalism are relatively innocuous, like letting newspapers become tax-exempt nonprofits. At least this wouldn’t do too much harm, and, given recent performance in the industry, it approaches being fiscally neutral.

Other ideas, like forcing search engines to pay royalties to copyright holders, would have far more serious consequences. It’s hard to see whom this proposal would hurt worse, the search engines, socked with massive fees, or the copyright holders themselves – if search engines don’t index you, you don’t exist anymore.

The surest loser, though, would be the rest of us. Restricting the flow of news for the financial benefit of Rupert Murdoch seems a far cry from our Constitution, which allows Congress “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Burdening search engines seems only to inhibit the progress of science and the useful arts, while enriching a small number of people. It might pass the letter of the law, but I doubt that this is what the founders had in mind.

But anyway…. shame on Americans for our “growing reliance on the Internet”! Don’t we realize that, as the article notes, “a free press is a critical pillar of democracy” – and that a free press only counts, apparently, if it’s on dead trees?

I’m all in favor of the good the press can do, but it strikes me as shortsighted to think that this good can only be done in the traditional media. It also seems foolish to me to think that tying the press more closely to the government will make it more critical and independent. Often, the very best journalism comes from complete outsiders. I’m reminded of Radley Balko’s recent (and excellent) takedown of the claim that Internet journalists are basically parasites:

In 20 years, the Gannett-owned Jackson Clarion-Ledger never got around to investigating Steven Hayne, despite the fact that all the problems associated with him and Mississippi’s autopsy system are and have been fairly common knowledge around the state for decades. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project, spurred by my reporting, called for Hayne’s medical license that the paper had no choice but to begin to cover a huge story that had been going on right under its nose for two decades.

… That’s when the paper starting stealing my scoops. Me, a web-based reporter working on a relatively limited budget. Like this story (covered by the paper a week later). And this one (covered by the paper weeks later here). Oh, and that well-funded traditional media giant CNN did the same thing.

Tell me again, who’s the parasite here? And why should taxpayers bail out yet another industry that isn’t delivering what we want?

States Are Always Surprised When the Bubble Bursts

Steve Chapman points out in the Chicago Tribune:

The crisis in state budgets is not an accident, and it wasn’t unforeseeable. For years, most states have spent like there’s no tomorrow, and now tomorrow is here. They bring to mind the lament of Mickey Mantle, who said, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

If they had known the revenue flood wasn’t a permanent fact of life, governors and legislators might have prepared for drought. Instead, like overstretched homeowners, they took on obligations they could meet only in the best-case scenario – which is not what has come to pass.

Over the last decade, state budgets have expanded rapidly. We have had good times and bad times, including a recession in 2001, but according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, this will be the first year since 1983 that total state outlays have not increased.

The days of wine and roses have been affordable due to a cascade of tax revenue. In state after state, the government’s take has ballooned. Overall, the average person’s state tax burden has risen by 42 percent since 1999 – nearly 50 percent beyond what the state would have needed just to keep spending constant, with allowances for inflation.

Would that other journalists would show such good sense when governors and legislators moan about the draconian budget cuts they’re being forced to make, taking their state budgets back to the dark Dickensian days of 2003 or 2005.

Education Journalism. Another Epic Failure

This weekend, the Washington Post took education secretary Arne Duncan to task for claiming that DC’s public school system has ”had more money than God for a long time.” Post education reporter Bill Turque notes a January 2009 study showing “that D.C., ranked against the 50 states, is 13th in per-pupil expenditures ($11,193).” The study he cites is the January 2009 edition of Education Week’s Quality Counts publication, which used “Department of Education data from 2005-06 (the latest year available).”

Is this finally an example of the investigative journalism I recently noted has been sorely lacking in education? Not exactly. The Post and Ed Week are reporting a figure that is less that half of what DC is actually spending on k-12 education this year.

Their first error is to imagine that the Dept. of Ed.’s 3-year-old data are the most recent available. As a few seconds of Googling demonstrate, the current year education budgets for the District are available on the website of DC’s Chief Financial Officer: here, here, and here.

What difference do 3 years make? Consider that total spending on education in DC has gone up in real terms over that period while enrollment has fallen from about 59,000 to fewer than 49,000 students. That alone has led to a dramatic rise in per pupil spending.

Next consider that Ed Week appears to have ignored capital spending (e.g., on building renovation and construction) from its calculations. So its “per pupil expenditures” are not the total per pupil figures that readers would naturally assume, they only cover part of the district’s spending (the part normally referred to as “current operating expenditures”). What difference does that make? Nearly $5,000 worth.

As I noted last year, “current operating expenditures” for DC were $13,466 in 2005-06 (Ed Week’s figure is lower because they applied a regional cost-of-living adjustment). DC’s total per pupil spending in that same year was $18,098. [Note that we have to infer that Ed Week excluded capital spending based on the numbers they report, because their table inexplicably fails to say what figures it is reporting.]

And finally, reporting old figures without adjusting for inflation understates how much was actually spent unless readers know to perform the inflation adjustment themselves.

So what happens when you add up this year’s total spending on k-12 education in DC and divide by this year’s actual enrollment? You end up with the real per pupil spending figure of $26,555.

So, secretary Duncan: you were right all along.

Any journalist or public official wishing an explanation of the current-year total per pupil spending figure cited above for Washington, DC  is welcome to contact me at acoulson(at) cato.org

Where Are the Muckrakers?

In the mythology of journalism, investigative reporters fall somewhere between archangels and demigods. They protect the public by exposing political deceit and corruption, burrowing relentlessly into the words and deeds of those in power, in search of the truth. And in the field of education, they are as numerous as leprechauns and unicorns.

In education, “muckrakers,” as Teddy Roosevelt called them, are few and far between. There are, however, legions of mucksailors – reporters who glide over the surface of a story, seldom probing beneath the public statements of those in power to determine their truth or falsehood. Through my web browser window I can watch the sails of a vast muck navy.

Consider the coverage of the battle over DC’s school voucher program. Democrats inserted language into the $410 billion omnibus spending bill that would sunset funding for the program after next year, instead of simply reauthorizing it for another full five-year term. The vouchers could still be reauthorized when they come up again, but since House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey ( D-Wis.) has already told DC public schools to prepare for the return of voucher students, that seems highly unlikely.

So here we have Democrats working to shut down a program serving 1,700 poor kids in the nation’s capital – kids who are so desperate to stay in their chosen private schools that they’ve made YouTube videos beseeching Congress and president Obama to save it. Given that most people are not inherently so cruel, why would Democrats want to kill this program? They say it’s because it robs money from needy public schools and gives it to private schools that are already flush from lavish tuition fees. But. Is. That. TRUE?

Is DC’s government-run k-12 system financially needy? Are the independent schools serving voucher students making a Madoff-style killing?

No. And… No.

These claims are rubbish. They are, in fact, MUCK. I have run the numbers on DC government k-12 education spending for the current school year and it is $26,555 per pupil. According to the government’s own published study of the voucher program, the average tuition charged by participating schools is $5,928. Furthermore, the voucher program actually added an extra $13 million a year to the DC public school budget, as a “sweetener” to elicit local and Democratic support.

But most Americans will never learn any of that. Because we have no muckrakers in the mainstream education media. We have mucksailors.

This is not entirely the journalists’ fault. Media businesses have been hit very hard in recent years, and are understaffed compared to earlier generations. Reporters are stretched very thin. But I ask the editorial establishment, what is more valuable to your readers: A dozen stories that merely regurgitate the official muck, or a single top notch investigative piece that demonstrates how our political leaders are flagrantly misleading the American people and exposes their real motives?

Speak truth to power? Anyone?

Anyone?