How to Save Journalism
The most dangerous misconception has to do with journalism itself. Journalism is a classic "public good"--something society needs and people want but market forces are now incapable of generating in sufficient quality or quantity. The institution should be understood the way we understand universal public education, military defense, public health and transportation infrastructure. The public-good nature of journalism has been largely disguised for the past century because advertising bankrolled much of the news, for better and for worse, in its efforts to reach consumers. Those days are over, as advertisers no longer need or seek to attach their appeals to journalism to connect with target audiences. Indeed, to the extent commercial media can scrap journalism standards to make the news "product" more attractive to advertisers, the cure will be worse than the disease.
This takes us to the second great misconception: that the crisis in journalism was created by the rise of the Internet and the current recession. In fact, the crisis began in earnest in the 1970s and was well under way by the 1990s. It owes far more to the phenomenon of media corporations maximizing profits by turning newsrooms into "profit centers," lowering quality and generally trivializing journalism. The hollowing out of the news and alienation of younger news consumers was largely disguised by the massive profits these firms recorded while they were stripping newsrooms for parts. But that's no longer possible. The Internet, by making news free online and steering advertisers elsewhere, merely accelerated a long-term process and made it irreversible. Unless we grasp the structural roots of the problem, we will fail to generate viable structural solutions.
By ignoring the public-good nature of journalism and the roots of the current crisis, too many contemporary observers continue to fantasize that it is just a matter of time before a new generation of entrepreneurs creates a financially viable model of journalism using digital technologies. By this reasoning, all government needs to do is clear the path with laxer regulations, perhaps some tax credits and a lot of cheerleading. Even David Carr of the New York Times, who has consistently recognized the point of retaining newsrooms and journalism, falls into the trap of assuming that the "cabals of bright young things" who are swarming New York might create a "fresh, ferocious wave" of new media that will turn the Internet from killer of media into savior. Carr's vision may work for entertainment media, but it is a nonstarter for journalism. As Matthew Hindman's new book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, convincingly demonstrates, the Internet is not some "wild west" incubator, where a new and more democratic journalism is being hatched. Internet traffic mostly gravitates to sites that aggregate and reproduce existing journalism, and the web is dominated by a handful of players, not unlike old media. Indeed, they are largely the same players.
There is no business model or combination of business models that will create a journalistic renaissance on the web. Even if the market and new technologies were to eventually solve journalism's problems, the notion that we must go without journalism for a decade or two while Wall Street figures out how to make a buck strikes us, frankly, as suicidal.
There will be commercial news media in the future, and the right of anyone to start a business that does journalism should remain inviolable. But there is no evidence that the news media democracy requires will be paid for by advertisers or subscribers. Nor will they be supported by foundations or billionaires; there simply are not enough to cover the massive need. And while it might be comforting to think we can rely on tax-deductible citizen donations to fund the news media we need, there is scant evidence enough money can be generated from this source.
House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Henry Waxman was right when he told December's FTC workshop on journalism, "This is a policy issue. Government is going to have to be involved in one way or another." Journalism, like other public goods, is going to require substantial public subsidy if it is to exist at a level necessary for self-government to succeed. The question, then, is not, Should there be subsidies? but, How do we get subsidies right?"
To do that, policy-makers, journalists and citizens must take an honest look at the history of journalism subsidies here and abroad, and they cannot cling dogmatically to the Manichaean view that press subsidies inexorably lead to tyranny.
Even those sympathetic to subsidies do not grasp just how prevalent they have been in American history. From the days of Washington, Jefferson and Madison through those of Andrew Jackson to the mid-nineteenth century, enormous printing and postal subsidies were the order of the day. The need for them was rarely questioned, which is perhaps one reason they have been so easily overlooked. They were developed with the intention of expanding the quantity, quality and range of journalism--and they were astronomical by today's standards. If, for example, the United States had devoted the same percentage of its GDP to journalism subsidies in 2009 as it did in the 1840s, we calculate that the allocation would have been $30 billion. In contrast, the federal subsidy last year for all of public broadcasting, not just journalism, was around $400 million.
The experience of America's first century demonstrates that subsidies of the sort we suggest pose no threat to democratic discourse; in fact, they foster it. Postal subsidies historically applied to all newspapers, regardless of viewpoint. Printing subsidies were spread among all major parties and factions. Of course, some papers were rabidly partisan, even irresponsible. But serious historians of the era are unanimous in holding that the extraordinary and diverse print culture that resulted from these subsidies built a foundation for the growth and consolidation of American democracy. Subsidies made possible much of the abolitionist press that led the fight against slavery.