Editor's Note: Authors Argue Time Has Come for Public Subsidization of Journalism

May 1, 2010

Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that for their experiment in self-government to succeed, citizens of the new nation must be armed with information, so they can make decisions about where it is headed. That’s why the First Amendment protects freedom of the press.

That concept was a keystone for the first two centuries of the nation’s existence. But in recent years, as the economy falters, advertising revenues dwindle and those news outlets that haven’t shuttered their doors spend less time reporting on government, many — including me — worry that the once fierce media watchdogs are evolving into docile house pets, focusing on the trivial and leaving the democracy unguarded.

There may yet be hope, say the authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism, published earlier this year by Nation Books.

Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, argue that because responsible journalism is so vital to America’s well-being, the government should dedicate public resources to support it.

“It’s time to recognize that all the evidence available to us at this point leads inexorably to one conclusion: Having anything remotely close to a satisfactory level of journalism will require a large public subsidy,” they write. “We know this is an unsettling notion for some, especially for journalists who have been taught to fear the heavy hand of government. But media subsidies and government intervention have taken many forms along the arc of the American experiment. And they can again. Indeed, they must.”

In the first century of America’s history, before advertising became the primary financial support for news media, “the United States subsidized our newspapers and magazines to an extent very few Americans fully appreciate,” McChesney said during a recent telephone interview. “The most important of them were postal subsidies, which made the cost of mailing a newspaper or magazine just a small fraction of the cost of sending a letter of the same weight. And also printing subsidies, where the government actually paid printers to do all their government jobs, with [a] 40 percent additional payment above and beyond the actual cost.”

He believes that “the success of advertising as a commercial model, making journalism commercially lucrative for the last century, has given Americans a misunderstanding of how journalism should be thought of. Journalism should be regarded as a public good, not as a private good. … It is a crucial, necessary and important social undertaking that the market does not have the ability to produce in sufficient quality or quantity. National defense, public education, transportation infrastructure, these are all classic public goods. If left to the market, they just don’t exist. There’s no incentive for producers or consumers to participate to make it happen. And we think journalism should be understood that way.” 

The authors suggest short- and long-term solutions to what they see as “the collapse of American journalism.”

In the near future, the government should increase tenfold the amount of taxpayer funds that go to community and university public access radio and television outlets. Even at that level, the expense would be only about half of what Canada, for instance, spends per capita, they say. To ensure that young journalists stay involved in the craft, they propose a national program similar to AmeriCorps that could provide stipends for them to cover their communities for various nonprofit media. And they believe postal rates should be dramatically lowered for all publications with less than 20 percent advertising. Those actions “would help us buy time for another five to 10 years,” McChesney says.

Long-term solutions should embrace the Internet, McChesney says, without setting up pay walls that restrict rather than promote access to news. One method might be to allow every American to donate, say, $200 of government money to the nonprofit news medium of his or her choice.

If a venture of that sort “proved wildly popular,” with about half of the citizens participating, the authors write, the annual cost of those and other options could approach $30 billion. While that’s not an insignificant amount, they say it is about the same as the postal and printing subsidies in the nation’s early days, when viewed today as a percentage of the gross domestic product.

Much of the money to help subsidize nonprofit, competing news outlets, McChesney and Nichols write, could come from taxes on such areas as the broadcast spectrum, which commercial television and radio stations now use for free; consumer electronics, in which consumers who purchase the devices would pay to create nonprofit content for them; and Internet service providers and cell phones.

The authors do acknowledge concerns about potential government control over news content but point to other democracies that subsidize news media and still maintain a free and vigorous press.

“Almost without exception,” McChesney said in a C-SPAN broadcast of a panel discussion at the National Press Club, “every other major industrial democracy in the world — in east Asia and in Europe and north of us in Canada — devotes a much larger national government sum subsidizing public and community media and journalism.” Among the most heavily subsidized, he says, are Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Germany, Norway and Japan. Not coincidentally, he believes, those six nations also are cited as among those with the least amount of press censorship by Freedom House, an independent organization that advocates for democracy and human rights around the world.

McChesney and Nichols acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. “We’re not here to prescribe what we think proper journalism is or isn’t. We think that’s something for journalists and citizens to work out in time,” McChesney says. But he believes it is time to begin an urgent discussion because “journalism is in free-fall collapse.”

As for those who say government subsidies for news media would amount to another unnecessary federal intrusion into the marketplace, McChesney counters: “It grows out of the founders’ understanding of democracy and how it works. It’s one that we argue strongly in the book is of value to people who believe in free-market economics, to people who believe in labor unions, to people who believe in socialism, to people who believe in corporations — any of them can buy into this. This is not an argument that is predicated on a certain vision of how our economy should be structured. It’s chapter and verse right out of Jefferson and Madison and the Supreme Court. …”

“The only ideology is the notion of self-government and the Constitution,” McChesney says. “It’s an investment in democracy.”

Illinois Issues, May 2010