My dog can't talk, but his preferences are revealed by his actions. I know he likes tofu better than chicken because, given a choice between a piece of tofu and a piece of chicken, he will pick the tofu.
Choices reveal human preferences too. In January, my parents arranged for me to have a free three-month subscription to Canada's national newspaper. Six weeks into the subscription, I cancelled it. The choice reveals that my willingness to pay for newsprint is less than zero. A paper is actually a "bad", not a "good", because of the costs of gathering up and disposing of the unread newsprint.
Canada's national newspaper has less market power than an academic journal. No one (or hardly anyone) is required to read a particular newspaper article in order to pass a course and obtain a university degree. For people who are seeking information or entertainment, there are many close substitutes: other Canadian newspapers, international newspapers, and blogs. If the paper charged for its on-line content, its readership would dry up.
An alternative revenue source is on-line advertising. Canada's national newspaper structures its web page so that finding content requires the reader to click up to half a dozen times, with each click revealing more ads. Are people willing to pay six clicks to buy content? Some are. Others save the clicks by logging onto Facebook or Twitter, and going directly to pages recommended by friends. There's a three-way fight going on between old-style newspapers looking for advertising dollars, readers looking to avoid clicks and pop-ups, and look-alike sites like this one, which borrow content and lure away advertising revenue. I'm not betting on the newspapers.
So what's the answer? The British Conservative government has proposed one solution, the Big Society. If we can't afford to - or are unwilling to - pay someone to weed the flower beds in the local park or shelves books in the public library, we can ask for volunteers. After all, there's plenty of unemployed people with time on their hands. So perhaps the answer is volunteer journalism, like this blog?
As an economist, I believe that people do things because they get something out of it. I suspect that, if you asked for volunteers to maintain the flower beds at the local park, nobody would want to do the weeding, and everyone would like to design the lay-out of the beds, planting their favourite flowers.
The journalistic equivalent of designing the flower beds is reporting results that reflect your view of the world. Reporting friends' research findings. Promoting organizations that you have a personal association with. Advocating the change you want to see in the world.
Which brings us to the rise of Fox News. If mere information provision is no longer profitable, who will volunteer to subsidize a news operation? Someone who is looking to re-design the flower beds - or a nation's government.
Yet as an explanation for the rise of Fox News, this is too easy. Why did Katie Couric ask Sarah Palin which newspapers or magazines she read? It's because what we read defines us. Like it or loathe it, Fox News provides its viewers with a strong sense of identity:
Disclosure: My relationship with Canada's national newspaper is explained here.