The first is somewhat obvious: there has been a significant and distressing contraction in the coverage of the world by the American press since the onset of the financial crisis that has overwhelmed the profession. Along with the inevitable shrinkage of newsrooms has come the elimination of foreign bureaus and foreign correspondents. Reporting of foreign news is, naturally, down as well. At the moment when we need a great expansion of such journalism, there’s a great contraction.
Second, a parallel development is the rise of national media in other nations designed to have a global presence. BBC World News and BBC World Service have been and are leaders here, but new entrants are coming into the arena— notable examples being Al Jazeera of Qatar, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV of China, and France 24.
Third, it is a reasonably debatable question whether the proliferation of expression that has arrived via the Internet will naturally provide the kind and quality of information we need in a globalized world. People often point to the rise of “citizen journalists” as an offset to the declining fortunes of the traditional press. I believe this is not an even exchange, that journalistic institutions matter, and, therefore we will need to do more than adopt a laissez-faire attitude about the fate of the press.
Fourth, while philanthropy and nonprofit models add a great deal to the journalistic mix, the sustainable institutions they create are unlikely to reach the scale that the world needs.
But neither will the free market. The press, as we have come to define its role in public life, is a public good, and public goods are never completely realized in a free-market environment. I have argued in the past that as the world becomes more interconnected and interdependent, we need a greater commitment of public funding for the press so that US newsgathering operations may successfully establish a broader global reach and footprint.
To those who believe that public funding is inconsistent with our free-press traditions, here are a few facts. First, our modern press is the result of a complex structure that has more components than just private ownership operating in an open and free market. Newspapers have, indeed, largely been under private ownership, though by the middle of the twentieth century, it was clear that features of the daily newspaper business were leading to monopoly status in virtually every city across the country. Most American cities have one daily, a situation that is part blessing and part curse. Even this largely unregulated market in daily newspapers produced a better product (in the sense of elevating their capacity to inform their readers and the public) for reasons beyond “business,” by not pocketing all of their monopolistic profits, but instead by investing in hiring specialized reporters to deepen their coverage. This began in the 1970s and continued until recently, when under major new technological and marketplace pressures and through the loss of its previous monopolistic protections, the press began shedding journalistic capacity.
Broadcasting, meanwhile, was designed (under the Radio Act of 1927 and then the Communications Act of 1934) to be comprised of private owners licensed by the government and regulated according to the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.” That system included regulations intended to expand the range of voices the “public” needed to hear, yet would not if the “licensees” solely followed their “business” interests. Hence the government devised policies to promote coverage of “local” news, “fairness” in the discussion of public issues, and “equal time” in the coverage of candidates for public office—all upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional under the First Amendment.
Finally, there is another branch of the US media, the system of public broadcasting, surviving in part through direct public funding.