Picard, who also edits the Journal of Media Business Studies, framed the problem well in a report in the magazine titled, “The Challenges of Public Functions and Commercial Media”:

We expect a great deal of media companies. We expect them to inform us about our communities, the nation, and the world. We expect them to serve public interests by creating the means for the aspirations and concerns of citizens to be conveyed and acted upon in society. We expect them to self-finance their operations through commercial activities. We expect them to behave without self-interest. We expect them not to disappoint us. They often do. The roots of that disappointment can be found in…an all-too-often uncritical belief that the market system will produce the media products and services society wants and needs. This belief emanates from a general satisfaction with competitive markets for other goods and services and from the underlying conviction that too much government involvement in society—especially in the media—is undesirable and harmful…

The conflict between public functions and private media creates a paradox because commercially funded media cannot pursue economic self-interest without harming their public-service roles. Market-based media face levels of competition never before experienced and their markets are more unstable than in the past century, and because they operate in a system in which the primary driver is self-interest and heavy commercialization of content, the movement away from serving public functions is clearly evident and is breeding discontent among social observers and citizens.

In addition to its public-service role, the press is distinctive in another way that only aggravates the current crisis. As Edwin Baker notes in his book, Media, Markets, and Democracy, “Media products are unusual in that often two very different purchasers pay for the transfer of media content to its audience.” In other words, the media enterprise sells products to audiences and then sells audiences to advertisers. The free-content model of most online news sources has meant that consumers are less willing than ever to pay subscription fees, making the press—both in print and online—more reliant than ever on advertising. The result: media have often been forced to sell audiences to advertisers rather than journalism to consumers. This is an underappreciated point. There are those who argue that the rise of infotainment, commentary, and lifestyle journalism simply reflects what readers want. More likely, however, those trends represent an attempt to cut content production costs and recruit the demographics that advertisers find most desirable.

But whether or not this argument holds up is beside the point. Citizens need news even if they’re not willing to pay for it, and newsgathering is expensive. “Clearly, journalism’s role of informing citizens is crucial to democracy,” says McChesney. “The mandate we have today is really the same mandate Jefferson and Madison faced when they were the first two secretaries of state. They instituted a policy to support three newspapers in each state of the country with subsidies from State Department memoranda notices, because they knew that unless there was that subsidy, there would be places with no newspapers.” If market forces have become unfavorable to the press, the question becomes, how do we support this essential institution of democracy? And why do journalists categorically reject the idea that government could help?

When Geneva Overholser, the veteran editor and a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, brought up the role of government in her 2006 report, “On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change,” she encountered substantial opposition. “I honestly can’t believe how many people just look at me as if I can’t possibly be taken seriously when I say we need to think carefully about the role of government,” says Overholser. Timothy Karr, the campaign director for Free Press, attributes journalists’ “knee-jerk” libertarianism to an absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment. “We’re rooted in this idea…that any form of government intervention or government assistance strikes us as a violation of our First Amendment rights,” says Karr, who has worked for both The New York Times and Time.

What Overholser, Karr, and a handful of other journalists and academics point out is that government has always played a role in American journalism. Major government subsidies include reduced postal rates, copyright protection, state sales-tax exemptions, government advertising, and the Newspaper Preservation Act, which allowed regional newspapers with distinct editorial staffs to merge business operations. The Freedom of Information Act, government press officers, and public education and libraries (which promote literacy and distribute content) have also been cited as examples of government support for the press. And certainly, nonprofit-owned media should be considered government-subsidized given that their parent organizations are tax exempt.

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.