We Need to Subsidize Journalism as a Public Good

Most commentary I’ve heard concerning the ongoing collapse of print journalism focuses on the need for a new pricing model, or some way to “monetize” web content. Media scholars Robert McChesney and John Nichols, in their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again, suggest a more radical solution, one that’s closer to the free-press vision of the Founders. The authors’ ideas are “radical” in the sense of “returning to the roots.”

David Brancaccio interviewed the two authors for a recent episode (“Saving American Journalism“) of NOW on PBS (linked page includes full video of the interview). Here are some highlights (from the transcript) of this fascinating interview:

BRANCACCIO: … Thanks for doing this. All right, Robert McChesney, the state of newspaper journalism right now, and I guess we could say it’s in a bad stretch? That would be one phrase. Some have said total collapse. Is that fair?

MCCHESNEY: Very fair.


MCCHESNEY: Oh absolutely. If you look at it—the journalism that we knew growing up … It’s not gonna exist in ten years.

BRANCACCIO: Well, John Nichols, the—the stakes are high here. I saw this prediction a few months ago, but that—that the New York Times could go belly-up. Someone was counting the months. That may be a little unreasonable. But that’s what we’re talking about?

NICHOLS: It’s absolutely what we’re talking about. Understand that—we, in the last year, have seen major daily newspapers, the New York Timeses of communities around the country go down. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer shu—shut down, the Rocky Mountain News, great historic newspapers. And this is not really the core of the problem. The core of the problem is the papers that are staying open, but doing massive layoffs. You cannot maintain journalism when you are literally laying off at—at major daily newspapers dozens, even hundreds of reporters. If this keeps going, we’re gonna create the perfect model for a propaganda state. The perfect model for a propaganda state is very, very few—independent journalists—independent sources of news out there, but—a need for news, a demand for information. And then what—who fills that vacuum? Well, naturally—the government and big corporations.

BRANCACCIO: Now most of those watching with have a sense of why. The Internet came in. Craigslist took all the classified ads that generated so much money for journalism. But let’s move on from the why. There may not be newsprint on the front door but digital will ride to the rescue. We’ll save some trees, Bob.

MCCHESNEY: Well, the problem with that is that journalism is—requires journalists. It requires editors. It requires fact-checkers. It requires institutional resources to protect the news operation from interference, be it corporate or governmental, so it can be independent. And there’s no evidence that this technology, the Internet, will provide that at all. In fact—the evidence is already pretty clear that if we’re gonna sit around and wait for the digital realm to recreate what we’re losing, it’s not coming in the foreseeable future, if ever. And so there’s really—the hope that the Internet’s gonna set us free. There’s really much more of a faith-based—view of the problem than a reality-based one.

BRANCACCIO: But—but John, you must have some faith in the notion of free enterprise, America’s innovative capacity. I mean, the digital universe presents enormous opportunities. Won’t someone soon figure this out, how to bring money into journalism?

NICHOLS: … we’re losing 1000 newspaper employees a month in layoffs, firings. We’re having major newspapers closing. There is absolutely no evidence, and I want to underline that. No evidence that what we’re losing is being replaced on the net. Some of these newspapers that have closed down have said, “Well, we’re gonna maintain an Internet presence.” But the number of people that they are employing on the Internet, compared to what they were employing in print, is often at—a one on the Internet to 20 when they were in print.

BRANCACCIO: If the old media crumbles, particularly newspapers, then who is gonna actually do the original journalism that allows, what, democracy to flourish?

NICHOLS: There’s a new Pew study, from Baltimore, Maryland. And they looked at a week in Baltimore. They said, “Well, who’s—who’s generating the stories? What—what type of media’s giving us the stories?” 96 percent, even in this state of decline for old media—96 percent were coming from old media. Only four percent from the Internet.

And—they suggest that as the amount of coverage by traditional media, they—particularly the Baltimore Sun has declined dramatically that more and more, the stories are driven by official sources, be they governmental or corporate. Only about 14 percent of the stories in the—in the study were generated by reporters going out and, you know, digging, finding something and putting it on the agenda.

Mc Chesney and Nichols talk about a solution.

MCCHESNEY: … the smart way to look at it historically, and what we do in our work is to view the advertising era as the anomaly, not as the rule. But we had this era for 100 years, roughly, where advertising put up the money to provide the best—majority revenues that paid for journalism in this country. It paid for it from the late 19th century on. And we assume that was the natural order. Now we’re beginning to see, now that advertisers have other choices … They’re moving into other ways to reach their target audiences… we’re entering a new era where we have to face up to the reality that journalism isn’t a profitable enterprise… if we’re gonna have journalism, we have to face that truth and understand it as the founders of this republic did. It’s a public good. It requires public subsidies or it won’t exist.

NICHOLS: … public engagement in making sure that we have the delivery of this public good is as American as apple pie. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, sat around in the early days of the republic—a republic that I might emphasize was founded, in large part, by journalists, people like Tom Paine—they sat around in the early days of the republic and said, “How do we create a civic and Democratic life that isn’t just a reflection of Great Britain, of—of the colonial powers? The way we’re going to do that is to make sure that we have many, many sources of information, that we have a competitive, free and independent, a wild, cacophonous media. And the way that’s gonna happen is not by waiting for the quote-and-quote, ‘market,’ to give us that. We are going to do postal subsidies.”

… Those subsidies, the postal subsidies especially, helped to foster the abolitionist press. The abolitionist press challenged the great sin of the founding of this republic. A time when in the U.S. Congress, that it was—it was not permitted to debate slavery. And so, we can have a dissident, challenging—anti-government press, operating within a system of subsidies. It is very possible. In fact, it happens in countries all over the world.

MCCHESNEY: And the contemporary examples we see that are striking about this come in Western Europe and Scandinavia, which have enormous printing subsidies similar in cash value to the early republic in this country—of public media, of journalism, of newspapers. And yet managed to have the freest commercial news—private news media in the world, according to Freedom House. I mean, these are the places you go for the least amount of government censorship, a private news media, is in the countries with the heaviest public subsidies of broadcasting and—media.

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2 Responses to “We Need to Subsidize Journalism as a Public Good”
  1. Jeff Pelline says:

    Thanks Don. Let’s not forgot what got newspapers in trouble: building newspaper “chains” and big debt loads that they can’t pay off now. Journalism is a profitable enough business, with the right leaders and cost structure. Its margins are way better than grocery stores, for example. New competitors need to spring up just as they have for hundreds of years in the print world. They will too. It’s an exciting era.

  2. Don Pelton says:

    McChesney seems to be saying that such profitability is a thing of the past. Time will tell who’s right.

    I suppose one could make the argument that journalism is a publilc good that should be subsidized whether it’s profitable or not. That sounds right to me, since the profit arrangement had already brought us tremendous concentration of corporate ownership even before the recent meltdown, hardly a healthy development for a press that is supposed to speak truth to power.

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