The online divisions of newspapers and broadcasters are experimenting vigorously with new paywall and advertising models that they hope will replace a significant amount of the lost revenues from the old business models. Let’s hope they succeed. However, as the FTC staff noted:
There are reasons for concern that experimentation may not produce a robust and sustainable business model for commercial journalism. History in the United States shows that readers of the news have never paid anywhere close to the full cost of providing the news. Rather, journalism has always been subsidized to a large extent by, for example, the federal government, political parties, or advertising.
It would be possible to argue, as our friends at the Cato Institute and other free-market or libertarian organizations surely would, that the old postal subsidies were an error, even though George Washington supported them; that all other forms of direct and indirect government subsidy to journalism were misguided when enacted; and that the best possible policy going forward would be to eliminate all forms of targeted support for journalism in every corner of the federal policy regime. But such arguments are radical and wrong.
Commercial licensees are making profits from scarce public resources, the airwaves; they must compensate the public for their access, just as resource companies do when they mine ore or cut trees in public parks. Moreover, as the Founders envisioned, freedom of the press and a healthy public square are vital to the republic—so vital that their pursuit is worthy of modest, content-neutral public investments in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly free-market system.
As has been pointed out many times in this magazine, professional reporting that bears witness to complex events and seeks to hold government and corporate power to account is expensive to produce. To do it well requires more training than is typically needed to hold a real estate license but less than is needed to perform brain surgery. To do it well over time, under periodic pressure from powerful opponents, requires resources, experience, and the contextual influence of professional norms and peer review.
As with medicine, law, and accounting, the evolution of journalism into a profession during the late twentieth century provided no guarantees against fraud or systemic failure, but it did bring with it an overall improvement in civic information and discourse, in comparison to the pre-professional days of tabloid murder sheets, extortionists with flash cameras, and heavily politicized muckrakers.
Still, to emphasize the enduring value of professional journalism does not require that we discount the value of amateurs. There are many who place their journalistic faith in new methodologies accessible by amateurs and enabled by digital technology—“crowdsourcing” to crack complex puzzles or muster public outcry, for example, or data-mining projects conceived by computer programmers, or the spread of citizen-reporters who bear witness to important events around the world with cell phones, without formal training beyond that required to post their clips to YouTube.
When it comes to media policy reform, it is fair for the amateurism optimists (as I think of them) to worry about an inherent bias toward large, professional organizations. This bias has been present, to cite one example, in the regulation of cable franchises at the county and city levels of government backed by federal law. That regime of rules was supposed to seed innovation on subsidized public, educational, and government channels. In many jurisdictions, it hasn’t. New policy ideas should be interrogated for biases against small innovators and cleansed of them where possible.
We do have reliable evidence that the public continues to value mainstream professional journalism, however, even when so many new choices are available in digital spaces. For example, the total audience for the best newspaper journalism has grown markedly since 2000, if online readers are taken into account. The audiences for existing public media outlets in the U.S. are also healthy and growing. The country’s 365 public television stations have 61 million viewers each week, according to research by Barbara Cochran, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair of Public Affairs Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. Public radio has 30 million listeners. During the last two decades, the total audience for NPR member stations has grown 176 percent, including a 9 percent expansion during the last five years. Altogether, the public broadcasting system reaches 98 percent of the American population. Opinion surveys also show that the public media outlets enjoy considerably higher trust than do their commercial counterparts.