Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols believe that “journalists deserve subsidies, too.” They argue that America is “nearing a point where we will no longer have more than minimal resources (relative to the nation’s size) dedicated to reporting the news.”
There’s every reason to dispute their woe-is-us assumption. There’s even more reason to say they are wildly off-base in calling for special subsidies for journalists.
The authors, longstanding activists in media reform, are exceedingly well-meaning. And they are more accurate than not when they say:
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.
If the authors had only pursued their logic, they’d have ended up at the only sensible conclusion — that taxpayers could well subsidize the equivalent of the postal and printing subsidies they celebrate (among many other infrastructure supports that helped get the news from one place to another, such as roads, never mind the variety of other government help that’s gone to news organizations over the past several centuries.
What would following their logic lead us to in a digital world? That’s easy: We should collectively install dark fiber to every home and business where it’s feasible to do so, and put fiber as close to the ones that are too remote to make sense otherwise. It should be “dark fiber” — that is, data lines not controlled by government but available for others to light up to provide services for users.
This would not be about journalism only, any more than building roads in the 18th and 19th and 20th centuries was about helping newspapers deliver their goods to people’s homes and businesses. It would be about boosting trade of services and information (for-profit and not-for-profit), one part of which would be media.
We are seeing an explosion of creativity and innovation in media and journalism right now. Entrepreneurs and big companies alike are experimenting in new forms of journalism and ways to pay for it.
We have never had so much high-quality coverage in some areas, such as technology, as we have today. We have never had so much truly local conversation that has high value as we have today. And we will have vastly more tomorrow.
We may well be losing, at least temporarily, some of what Alex Jones calls “accountability journalism” — hard-nosed reporting of what powerful institutions, including government, are doing with our money and, in some cases, our lives. But to assume it will disappear and not be replaced, especially given some of the experiments we’re seeing, is grossly premature.
But Nichols and McChesney make that worst-case assumption, and veer off to this conclusion:
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.
We don’t need government support of this kind. It will lead us down a path that media reformers will rue: licensing of journalists, picking of winners and other pernicious outcomes.
Government surely does have a role, no question. But it should be to create the fundamental communications infrastructure on which tomorrow’s journalism can thrive.