How to Save Journalism
But must Americans pay $30 billion a year to get the job done right? Possibly not. Digital technologies have dramatically lowered production and distribution costs. Still, the main source of great journalism is compensated human labor, and, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. We're longtime advocates of citizen journalism and the blogosphere, but our experience tells us that volunteer labor is insufficient to meet America's journalism needs. The digital revolution has the capacity to radically democratize and improve journalism, but only if there is a foundation of newsrooms--all of which will be digital or have digital components--with adequately paid staff who interact with and provide material for the blogosphere.
The moral of the story is clear: journalism and press subsidies are the price of civilization. To deliver this public good in sufficient measure to sustain democracy, it must be treated as we treat national security. No one would dare suggest that our military defense could be adequately covered by volunteer labor, pledge drives, bake sales, silent auctions and foundation grants. The same is true for journalism. Cautious proponents of press subsidies think in terms of nickels and dimes, but we need to think in terms of billions. Columbia Journalism School professor Todd Gitlin got it right: "We're rapidly running out of alternatives to public finance.... It's time to move to the next level and entertain a grown-up debate among concrete ideas."
How can we best spawn a vibrant, independent and competitive press without ceding government control over content? There are models, historic and international, from which we can borrow. No one-size-fits-all solution will suffice, since all forms of support have biases built into them. But if citizens spend as much time considering this issue as our corporate media executives and investors do trying to privatize, wall off and commercialize the Internet, journalism and democracy will win out.
In our new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, we offer proposals for long-term subsidies to spawn independent digital journalism. But we do not claim to have all the answers. What we claim--what we know--is that it is now imperative that emergency measures be proposed, debated and implemented. People need to see tangible examples of "public good" interventions, or the discussion about renewing journalism will amount to little more than fiddling while Rome burns. The point now is to generate popular participation in and support for a small-d democratic response.
The starting point could be a debate about "bailouts" to keep struggling commercial news media, especially newspapers and magazines, afloat. As a rule, we oppose bailing out or subsidizing commercial news media. We believe subsidies should go primarily to nonprofit and noncommercial media. We are not doctrinaire on this point and believe it should be subject to debate, especially for short-term, emergency measures. If subsidies do go to commercial interests, the public needs to get something of substance in return. But the lion's share of subsidies must go now and in the future to developing and expanding the nonprofit and noncommercial sector. Journalism needs an institutional structure that comports with its status as a public good.
What are we talking about? For starters, spending on public and community broadcasting should increase dramatically, with the money going primarily to journalism, especially on the local level. We never thought one commercial newsroom was satisfactory for an entire community; why should we regard it as acceptable to have a single noncommercial newsroom serve an entire community? Let's also have AmeriCorps put thousands of young people to work, perhaps as journalists on start-up digital "publications" covering underserved communities nationwide. This would quickly put unemployed journalists to work. Let's also craft legislation to expedite the transition of failing daily newspapers into solvent nonprofit or low-profit entities. It is healthy for communities to have general news media that cover all the relevant news and draw everyone together, in addition to specialized media. Shifting newspapers from high-profit to low-profit or nonprofit ownership allows them to keep publishing as they, and we, complete the transit from old media to new.
Americans will embrace some of these ideas. They will reject others. The point is to get a debate going, to put proposals forward, to think big and to act with a sense of urgency. Let's assume, for the sake of journalism and democracy, that there will be subsidies. Then all we must do is put them to work in the same spirit and toward the same end as did the founders.