How to Save Journalism
The article below is excerpted from John Nichols and Robert McChesney's new book The Death and Life of American Journalism.
The founders of the American experiment were even by their own measures imperfect democrats. But they understood something about sustaining democracy that their successors seem to have forgotten. Everyone agrees that a free society requires a free press. But a free press without the resources to compensate those who gather and analyze information, and to distribute that information widely and in an easily accessible form, is like a seed without water or sunlight. It was with this understanding that Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and their contemporaries instituted elaborate systems of postal and printing subsidies to assure that freedom of the press would never be an empty promise; to that end they guaranteed what Madison described as "a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people...[that] is favorable to liberty."
Two centuries after Madison wrote those words, American news media are being steered off the cliff by investors and corporate managers who soured on their "properties" when the economic downturn dried up what was left of their advertising bonanza. They are taking journalism with them. Newsrooms are shrinking and disappearing altogether, along with statehouse, Washington and foreign bureaus. And with them goes the circulation of news and ideas that is indispensable to liberty. This is a dire moment for democracy, and it requires a renewal of one of America's oldest understandings: that a free people can govern themselves only if they have access to independent information about the issues of the day and the excesses of the powerful, and that it is the duty of government to guarantee both the promise and the reality of a free press.
When we recommended government subsidies last year in a Nation cover article ("The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers," April 6), some publishers and pundits objected, forgetting their Jeffersonian roots and arguing, with no sense of irony, that policies promoting diversity and robust debate would foster totalitarianism. Even well-intended Congressional hearings on the crisis avoided discussion of this logical response.
But as 2009 wore on and the crisis extended--with the venerable Christian Science Monitor cutting print production from daily to weekly, newspapers in Seattle and Ann Arbor ceasing print publication to exist solely online, with papers in Denver, Tucson and other cities closing altogether, and with talk of closures from San Francisco to Boston--the urgency of the moment, and the recognition that journalism would not be reborn on the Internet or saved by foundation grants, made it harder to dismiss subsidies. By year's end, the Columbia Journalism Review was highlighting a report by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson that proposed requiring "broadcasters, Internet service providers, and telecom users to pay into a fund that would be used to support local accountability journalism in communities around the country." CJR called the idea a "radical suggestion."
If the rather modest proposal by Downie and Schudson is "radical," then it is merely a fraction of the radicalism of America's founding. And like so many founding precepts, it is a radicalism that has long since been accepted as common sense by the rest of the world. Now Americans must re-embrace that common sense if we are to have journalism worthy of the Republic's promise and sufficient to meet its needs. This is an unavoidable reality. No reasonable case can be made that journalism will rebound as the economy recovers from a recession that accelerated but certainly did not cause the crisis confronting newspapers--or that a "next big thing" will arrive as soon as news organizations develop good Internet business plans. Many of the nation's largest papers are in bankruptcy or teetering on the brink, and layoffs continue at an alarming rate. The entirety of paid journalism, even its online variant, is struggling. There are far fewer working journalists per 100,000 Americans today than existed one, two or three decades ago. At current rates of decline, 2020 will make 2010 look like a golden age. When the Federal Trade Commission held its unprecedented two-day conference on the state of journalism in December, the operative term was "collapse." Conversely, the ratio of PR flacks to working journalists has skyrocketed, as spin replaces news.
The implications are clear: if our policy-makers do nothing, if "business as usual" prevails, we face a future where there will be relatively few paid journalists working in competing newsrooms with editors, fact-checkers, travel budgets and institutional support. Vast areas of public life and government activity will take place in the dark--as is already the case in many statehouses across the country. Independent and insightful coverage of the basic workings of local, state and federal government, and of our many interventions and occupations abroad, is disappearing as rapidly as the rainforests. The political implications are dire. Just as a brown planet cannot renew itself, so an uninformed electorate cannot renew democracy. Popular rule doesn't work without an informed citizenry, and an informed citizenry cannot exist without credible journalism.
This is more than academic theory; it is how the Supreme Court has interpreted the matter. As Justice Potter Stewart explained in 1974, the framers believed the First Amendment mandated the existence of a Fourth Estate because our experiment in constitutional democracy cannot succeed without it. That is hardly a controversial position, nor one that is necessarily left wing. It should be inviting to readers of the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, as markets cannot work effectively or efficiently unless investors, managers, workers and consumers have the credible information produced by serious journalism. Moreover, political decisions about economic issues will respect Main Street concerns only if citizens are kept abreast of the issues by independent news media. American officials urged Asian economies during the financial crisis of the late 1990s to develop independent media or suffer from the corruption and stagnation of "crony capitalism." We need to take a dose of our own medicine, and fast. Unfortunately, misconceptions about the crisis and the proper relationship between government and media warp the debate. Addressing these misconceptions, and getting beyond them, will be the great challenge of 2010.