Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols on federal subsidies for journalism

By Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols
Friday, October 30, 2009

President Obama, a self-declared "big newspaper junkie," fears he might be forced to go cold turkey. "I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding," he said last month to newspaper editors who asked about the crisis that threatens their industry and journalism in general.

It is not only the demise of big-name papers that should raise concern; the rapid decline of the newspaper industry is playing out quietly, with small, reasonably responsible dailies in cities and rural regions across the country disappearing without widespread notice. Dozens of daily and weekly newspapers have closed this year. Cities that once enjoyed the fruits of newspaper competition (Denver, Seattle) are starving. "Surviving" publications -- and many have filed for bankruptcy -- are cutting reporting staffs to the bone (this month, the New York Times said it would cut 100 more newsroom jobs). International bureaus, statehouse bureaus and Washington bureaus are being shuttered as media companies abandon the duty of telling citizens what is done in their name but, increasingly, without their informed consent.

What's notable about Obama's response to the question, posed during an Oval Office interview with editors from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, was his consciousness that the problem is not that print is fading. The problem is that newspaper newsrooms, once packed with reporters, are disappearing, and neither broadcast nor digital media are filling the void. Obama is right when he says that finding a model to pay journalists to question, analyze and speak truth to power "is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy."

For the first time in American history, we are nearing a point where we will no longer have more than minimal resources (relative to the nation's size) dedicated to reporting the news. The prospect that this "information age" could be characterized by unchecked spin and propaganda, where the best-financed voice almost always wins, and cynicism, ignorance and demoralization reach pandemic levels, is real. So, too, is the threat to the American experiment.

Our Constitution is, the Supreme Court reminds us, predicated on the assumption of an informed and participating citizenry. If insufficient news media exist to make that a realistic outcome, the foundation crumbles.

Obama, the former constitutional law professor, says, "Government without a tough and vibrant media is not an option for the United States of America."

Unfortunately, the marketplace now eliminates journalism jobs at a rate in excess of 1,000 a month -- with little concern for the president's view.

What to do? Bailing out media conglomerates would be morally and politically absurd. These firms have run journalism into the ground. If they cannot make it, let them go.

Wait for "pay-wall" technologies, billionaire philanthropists or unimagined business models to generate enough news to meet the immense demands of a self-governing society? There is no evidence that such a panacea is on the horizon.

This leaves one place to look for a solution: the government.

Did we just call for state-run media? Quite the opposite.

We seek to renew a rich if largely forgotten legacy of the American free-press tradition, one that speaks directly to today's crisis. The First Amendment necessarily prohibits state censorship, but it does not prevent citizens from using their government to subsidize and spawn independent media.

Indeed, the post-colonial press system was built on massive postal and printing subsidies. The first generations of Americans never imagined that the market would provide sound or sufficient journalism. The notion was unthinkable. They established enlightened subsidies, which broadened the marketplace of ideas and enhanced and protected core freedoms. Their initiatives were essential to America's progress.

The value of federal journalism subsidies as a percentage of gross domestic product in the first half of the 19th century ran, by our calculations, to about $30 billion per year in current dollars. It is this sort of commitment, established by Jefferson and Madison, that we must imagine to address the current crisis.

That level of subsidy to journalism is found in Scandinavian nations, which are among the freest and most democratic in the world.

Saving newspapers may be impossible. But we can save journalism. Step one is to begin debating ways for enlightened public subsidies to provide a competitive and independent digital news media. Also, we should greatly expand funding for public and community media, and establish policies that help convert dying daily newspapers into post-corporate low-profit news operations that realize the potential of the Internet. If we do so, journalism and democracy will not just survive. They will flourish.

John Nichols is a writer with the Nation and an editor at the Capital Times of Madison, Wis. Robert W. McChesney is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They co-founded Free Press, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to media reform, in 2003 and are co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Death and Life of American Journalism."

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