How to Save Journalism

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that given a choice between a society with no newspapers and a society with no government, he would choose the latter. Well, Tom’s heirs might be facing the former problem, and soon.

The news about newspapers just keeps getting worse. Since the subject was last broached on this page just two months ago, the Rocky Mountain News in Denver has closed and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has ceased print publication (both were second papers in two-paper towns). Detroit’s papers, the Free Press and the News, have cut home delivery back to three print editions per week, and the owner of the San Francisco Chronicle is threatening to shut his paper down entirely. By the end of this year, there could be at least one important American city without a single daily newspaper.

One quick and easy response to the death of the newspaper is, “So what?” After all, there’s a seemingly infinite array of news readily available, for free, on the Internet. But people who depend for news on Yahoo or Google, or even The Huffington Post, need to stop and think. Where do the links on those sites lead you? Usually to the Web site of a daily newspaper. Where did bloggers first see the stories upon which they pass the day ruminating? In a daily newspaper—or at least on a daily newspaper’s Web site.

Daily newspapers still employ almost all the people who are, at least occasionally, doing the independent “truth-to-power” journalism that is essential to a free society. And they can’t just “move to the Web.” The Post-Intelligencer, for instance, is continuing as a Web site with a staff of 20 journalists. The old print edition had a news staff of 165.

Lots of people are talking about this problem now, and in the April 6, 2009, issue of The Nation, journalist John Nichols and media professor Robert McChesney put forward the first modest proposal for what to do about it. When Nichols and McChesney speak, people interested in media reform listen. They were cofounders of Free Press, one of the most important vehicles in the media reform movement that has in recent years staged a mass rebellion against Federal Communications Commission rulings on concentrated media ownership.

Nichols and McChesney’s plan for saving American journalism calls for a significant investment of public resources in maintaining a journalistic infrastructure that will guarantee every American’s access to the information required for self-governance. In plain English, that means govern­ment subsidies for the news media.

“WHAT?” I HEAR you saying. “How can a state-supported press be free?” But, as Nichols and McChesney argue, state support doesn’t always mean state control. And more to the point, they note that America’s media system has never been entirely a creature of the free market. From the first days of the republic, the government established cheap, heavily subsidized postal rates for newspapers and other publications. Government has also subsidized newspapers by contracting with them to print government documents and by purchasing extensive ad space for the publication of legal notices. In recent years, those traditional subsidies for independent journalism have been disappearing just as it has become more imperiled.

To strengthen the safety net for American journalism, Nichols and McChesney propose eliminating postage entirely for periodicals that earn less than 20 percent of their money from ads. They also call for a $200 tax credit for daily newspaper subscriptions. In return for this subsidy, newspapers and magazines would be required to put at least 90 percent of their content online.

But the authors’ most sweeping proposal is for an expansion of funding for the public media system (what is now public broadcasting). “Other democracies outspend the United States by whopping margins per capita on public media,” they write. “Canada 16 times more; Germany 20 times more; Japan 43 times more; Britain 60 times more; Finland and Denmark 75 times more.” Nichols and McChesney propose closing that gap. They also suggest that, as big-city dailies bite the dust, their newsrooms be kept on the job as the digital extension of the local public broadcasting institutions.

There’s a lot more to this omnibus media reform—including subsidies for high school and college journalism. The price tag for the whole thing is $60 billion over a three-year period.

That sounds like a lot, but as those patriotic bumper stickers keep reminding us, “Freedom is not free.”

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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