A Helping Hand

The case for (smart) government support of journalism

When in September President Obama said he would be “happy to look” at congressional proposals designed to help the beleaguered newspaper industry, the president’s throwaway line provoked a flurry of articles about how government help for newspapers would compromise editorial integrity and stifle innovation and competition rising from the digital frontier—and wouldn’t save the doomed newsrooms anyway. Even the Newspaper Association of America said it wasn’t looking for “a specific handout, bailout, financial assistance, what have you.”

We are not in favor of a bailout for the newspaper business, and we certainly don’t support subsidies that would simply prop up the status quo. But it seems increasingly clear that, at least in the short term, sustaining the kind of accountability journalism that our society needs—and that newspapers have been the chief producers of—will require some creative help from Uncle Sam. And not because newspapers failed to adapt to the digital age. Ultimately, this isn’t about newspapers.

Omnibus newspapers were, as Clay Shirky noted in a talk he gave in September at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, historical accidents. The fact that for decades we had commercial entities (newspapers) producing a critical public good (accountability journalism) was the result of unique circumstances that no longer exist—namely, newspapers made money by selling consumers to advertisers, who had few options for reaching them on a mass scale. This allowed newspapers to charge advertisers inflated rates, and use that revenue to pay for accountability journalism that by itself wouldn’t have attracted enough readers to satisfy the advertisers.

The no-subsidies argument assumes that news outlets that deserve to survive in the new reality created by the Internet will find ways to be both commercially viable and a deliverer of accountability journalism. But as Shirky made clear, the people who want to do crossword puzzles (and the advertisers who want to reach them) will go to the crossword-puzzle sites; those who want recipes will go to recipe sites; etc. And those news outlets—whether they are newspapers or blogs or pro-am collaborations—that produce accountability journalism will pay for it how? Paywalls? Memberships? Micropayments? All may be part of the equation, but it most likely will not be enough to replace the monopoly-inflated advertising revenue that is gone for good.

In our cover story, Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson propose a number of public-policy strategies that could help to create a framework of public and private support for accountability journalism. Their most radical suggestion would require broadcasters, Internet service providers, and telecom users to pay into a fund that would be used to support local accountability journalism in communities around the country.

Media historian Paul Starr, in testimony in September before a congressional committee, made a similar case for subsidies. He suggested that they be “viewpoint-neutral,” “platform-neutral,” and “neutral or at least reasonably balanced as to organizational form. Taken as a whole they should not favor for-profit over nonprofit organizations, or vice versa.”

These are worthy ideas that should be part of the debate, but most important they are ideas that treat journalism as an indispensable public good, on par with our transportation infrastructure, the social safety net, public universities, etc. Government has always subsidized the press in this country, starting with legislation in 1792 that established below-cost mail rates for newspapers. Over the years, some subsidies have worked well, others less so. But the idea that a purely commercial media alone can continue to deliver the journalism we need is becoming difficult to swallow. If we don’t get beyond the rational but outdated fear of government help for accountability journalism—if we just let the market sort it out—this vital public good will continue to decline.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.