Steve Coll once suggested that newspapers, heading into a world where their profits were going away anyway, might look at reconstituting themselves as nonprofits. The most common reaction to this proposal was that newspapers couldn’t possibly live on subsidy, for God’s sake. But of course they can, because they have done for the better part of two centuries.

What used to subsidize the news was the local merchant, handing over money to the publisher of the Transcript or the Globe, who then gave a bit of it to the Nosy Parkers on the City Desk. This didn’t look like subsidy to the outside world—the profitable advertising circular and the subsidized spying operation were housed in the same building—but it was one, nevertheless. We the public have never paid full freight for the newsgathering done in our name—not since the 1830s, anyway.

The enormity of the change in the relationship of publisher, reader, and advertiser means that we’d better pray for—and work for—the restructuring of journalism’s existing institutions. We should take advantage of new models of news production, not because it’s some kind of ideal, but because the two other options—doing less with less in the case of shrinking, and doing nothing with nothing in the case of collapse—are worse.

 

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Clay Shirky has a joint appointment at New York University, as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and as an assistant arts professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program. He blogs at shirky.com/weblog.