‘Blogging opinion at the Washington Post.”
“I’m at Google, but I want to write opinion there.”
“I have a publisher, and now I want to write a book.”
That’s the kind of answer that 24-year-olds who are interested in politics often give when you ask what career they hope to pursue. Opinion writing is not a poor choice. Despite all the gloomsters’ talk about the death of the trade, there will continue to be plenty of demand for some kind of opinion product down the decades. Strong new institutions like Bloomberg, Google, or Twitter give future thought leaders, to use the fashionable but off-putting term, a terrific platform. So do some older institutions: the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times.
But there is one problem in the scenario. Young people respond to incentives from the hosts of those platforms. And nearly all the incentives offered by the authorities in journalism encourage writers to deliver a progressive message. After all, the U.S. government has been led by Democrats since these young people were in high school. U.S. universities promote thinking that is far more progressive than what anyone even imagined a decade ago. The executives who run the big companies are new to opinion, and they move tentatively. They don’t want to be called ideologues. So their default response is to encourage progressive work by their employees too, so that they in turn earn respect of the establishment.
Another factor plays a role later in careers: the prizes in our field. After all, uncertain publication owners are more likely to sustain backing for writers who gain glitzy external affirmation. The 2014 Pulitzer winner for opinion was Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, who mocks those who argue that Michigan’s tax rates darken the state’s prospects. The Gerald Loeb Prize, the second highest prize in opinion journalism, recently went to Peter Goodman, who made a column and a scandal of the fact that House majority leader Eric Cantor attended the Davos economic forum. Sometimes conservatives win these prizes, especially when they write on foreign policy: Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal bagged the Pulitzer recently. But a survey of the prizes shows that on domestic policy, both the news winners and the opinion writers tend to be progressive. War is okay, but covering the negative effect of tax increases spells death for a candidacy.
That is why it is important to alter what one might call the “prizescape.” Right-wing institutions cannot do this alone; younger people in more general organizations need to know that they can be honored for work that might be free-market, for example, or might highlight the struggles that business endures in our overregulated environment.
A few groups have begun to recognize this. The first was the International Policy Network, which created the Bastiat Prize, now housed at Reason magazine. The Bastiat is named after Frédéric Bastiat, the 19th-century French politician and economist who was one of the greatest publicists in the history of words. Bastiat wrote of the “unseen” loss that occurs when government takes over a business, or when government takes money that would otherwise serve worthy projects.
A second group was the Manhattan Institute, which created the Hayek Prize to honor books reflecting the spirit of Friedrich von Hayek, the economist who wrote that the incremental march of the state propels us on a “road to serfdom.” A third prize is the Paolucci Book Award, also for writing. Having sat on the jury for a number of these prizes, I’ve heard firsthand the joyous shock of authors who never expected to win an honor for classically liberal work. Winning the Hayek proved a life changer for Yang Jisheng, who chronicled the role of the Chinese state in China’s starvation of its people during the Great Leap Forward. Having won some of these prizes myself in mid-career, I’ve also felt that joy.
At the Coolidge Foundation, we’re adding yet a fourth: The Coolidge Prize for journalistic writing (National Review editor Rich Lowry was a finalist last year). The Coolidge, for Democrats and Republicans, highlights virtues that are out of favor right now, such as restrained government, civility, and balanced budgets. It particularly targets short writing, such as blogging, because Coolidge himself “wrote short”: Silent Cal kept his syndicated post-presidential newspaper columns under 600 words.
But the Prizescape remains off-kilter. To be sure, conservative work may win praise from the market, i.e. readers. Writing about a union’s excesses, for example, can win hours on Salem Radio, a conservative network. A publisher hearing that one of his writers’ books was mentioned by Rush Limbaugh, though, will not be cheered the way he would by news of a Pulitzer Prize. And the newer prizes, after all, have yet to achieve the status of old, glorious names like Pulitzer. Stabilizing and centering the Prizescape will require two steps. The first is to place pressure on the old prizes, to push their boards and judges to ask themselves, Is your review truly fair, or merely “fair”? The second is to support those new prizes. After all, the Loeb and the Pulitzer did not get where they are without sustained financial backing from media and donors. Donors who are dumping money on candidates might consider building institutional incentives for the journalists who write about what the candidates might do once elected.
Most mainstream journalists hesitate to even comment on the Prizescape. After all, such comments may offend, thereby reducing the chances of winning one in the future. So bringing about change is up to the owners. When Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought the Washington Post, he called for a new “golden era” for the newspaper. A “golden era” for all newspapers, however electronic their delivery vehicle, can come only if they are innovative enough to showcase and support all kinds of talent, including pro-market talent. The grown-up business people sitting on the other side of the table in the interview with youth often deplore what they call the balkanization of news. Shifting the Prizescape is structural de-balkanization.
A recalibration of newsroom and Prizescape will be easier in 2015 than it was in, say, 2013. That’s because editors across the nation are already in a quiet sweat at the thought that Republicans may make gains in the midterms or 2016. They lack the editors and writers to knowledgeably cover, say, a great tax cut. In a sort of half panic, they are beginning to scrounge for more conservative talent, the kind that might have inside knowledge of a Republican administration. Hiring is the beginning, but changing the Prizescape would be the more important step. A truly fair Prizescape will yield that great business opportunity, a broader market. It’s a vision any 24-year-old will respond to.
It’s good journalism.