Could Mark Zuckerberg save the news?

A surprising number of people who should know better seem to think he should. As The Atlantic reports, at a recent confab with news editors and executives in Palo Alto, the Facebook CEO revealed himself not only as someone who doesn't understand journalism, but who is "hostile to the press as a democratic institution." Why? Because Facebook, one of the largest media companies in the world, doesn't curate its content, but outsources that function to every individual user. What gets seen on Facebook is what people want to share, not what they need to know.

Worse yet, while Zuckerberg professed to care deeply about investigative journalism, he sees no role for his company in helping finance it. Asked whether he would pay licensing fees to publishers of content shared on Facebook, Zuckerberg replied, "I'm not sure that makes sense." And Facebook's response to allegations that it helped spread misinformation and outright lies and conspiracy theories during the 2016 election has been to change their algorithm to de-emphasize news altogether, further hurting publishers' bottom lines.

Instead, Zuckerberg passed the buck, suggesting that there might be a need for the government to subsidize journalism, as Britain does with the BBC.

It sounds like standard corporate dodging of responsibility. But that doesn't mean it's wrong. Facebook may be part of what broke the media. But fixing it may indeed require the government to make sure journalism gets paid for.

While Facebook has definitely made things worse for journalism, its problems far predate the advent of social media. News organizations have been shrinking for 20 years, and while more of the largest elite media companies have experienced a recent bump in subscriptions, and are investing more in reporting, much of the news landscape remains flat on its back. The internet itself is to blame for disrupting the vertical integration of the newspaper business that bundled investigative journalism with classified ads, box scores, and film reviews. Those things still come in a bundle, but that bundle is called internet access — and the companies who own the cables and cell towers have neither incentive nor obligation to subsidize investigative journalism. Social media didn't start the fight; it just delivered the coup de grace.

Ultimately, Facebook is a terrible way to get your news, so we should be happy it's trying to get out of the business of news dissemination. But the reason it was able to do so much damage is that media organizations had already retooled for an internet ecology in which individual pieces have to advertise themselves in order to get seen — an ecology of clickbait. The problem isn't that ad dollars aren't being downstreamed. The problem is that it will never be possible to generate enough ad revenue from the kind of journalism we need for a healthy democracy. Which means we have to fund it some other way.

How? One answer is through subscription revenue, which Megan McArdle, in a recent column, argued is the wave of the future. It certainly is the wave of the present — but it's only a possible future for a handful of elite media companies, and escalating subscription prices suggest it's a future where high-quality journalism is only available to an elite slice of the public. How can journalism inform the citizenry if most people can't afford to read it? And how can these organizations avoid catering to the sensibilities of this narrow slice of the public when that slice is paying the bills?

Which brings us back to Zuckerberg's allusion to some kind of subsidy. With Donald Trump in the White House, anyone should be wary of the idea that what America needs is state-sponsored media. Fox News is bad enough. Ultimately, if we want a robust free press, we can't expect the government to pay for it.

But the government could still make sure it's paid for.

When radio and then television first came on the scene, the government required broadcasters to devote a certain amount of time to programming that was in the public interest, like news, as a condition of licensure. The companies who own the last-mile connection to the consumer — corporations like Comcast, Spectrum, Verizon, and AT&T that own the cables, fiber, and cell towers that bring stories to your phone, tablet, or laptop — are in a similar position to the broadcasters of old, inasmuch as they are using a scarce public good (rights of way, slices of spectrum) to provide a private service. Why couldn't the government require them to provide some kind of public service in return?

One way to do that would be to require such companies to spend a specified percentage of revenue on journalism that serves the public interest.

This would effectively be a tax, and would be passed on to consumers. But it would not require the government to be involved in running or directly funding a news service. It wouldn't even necessarily require a government-chartered independent organization like the BBC. Meanwhile, demand for internet access is likely inelastic enough to support a fairly stable revenue stream. People might switch from cable to satellite, or drop cable television in favor of streaming, but how many people would respond to a modest price hike by ditching their smart phones?

In effect, a regulation requiring that last-mile service providers spend a certain amount on journalism would forcibly recreate the vertical integration that the internet destroyed in the first place. Once again, a public service would be bundled with other content that people are more interested in paying for. And they certainly pay enough to fund a lot of journalism. Comcast's annual revenue in 2017 was approximately $85 billion. When The New York Times subscription revenue topped $1 billion last year, that made headlines.

Such a regulation would certainly not be a panacea. What constitutes journalism that serves the public interest would no doubt be a subject of frequent litigation — and political agitation. Even if a lot of new journalism was funded, much of it might be like gold-plated C-SPAN, read only by obsessives and making little impact on the public. And politically speaking, passing a subsidy for journalists would be a heavy lift at a time of rampant distrust of the media.

But on the other hand the threat of litigation and agitation might actually force subsidized news to hew to a more journalistically ethical line, incentives precisely counter to those that dominate in our clickbait era. People might turn out to have more of a taste for well-researched and well-written journalism if companies could afford to produce more of it, and weren't so desperate to attract attention; lots of people do watch the BBC, after all. Finally, regulations could be tailored to encourage investment in local news organizations, which would put more reporters in close proximity to consumers, covering stories of particular interest to them. That, in turn, could build up greater faith in a press that has grown increasingly distant and insular, for economic as well as cultural reasons, from much of the public it aims to serve.

Regardless, the most important thing to recognize is that good news was never that attractive a product. Rather, it was a kind of public service. If we want that service to be provided by the marketplace — and we should — we have to make sure the marketplace is structured in such a way that it is possible to do so, and not just for the handful of elite media organizations that can successfully erect a paywall.

If the government doesn't do that job, there's no reason to think the marketplace will naturally reach an equilibrium that is healthy for our democracy, anymore than it will naturally stabilize the climate.