By clinging to the idea that they work in a profession free of government involvement, journalists are perpetuating a myth that may impede the future of their profession. As Overholser says, “Government is already playing all kinds of roles for good and for ill. And we ignore that at our peril. We’re just ignorant about it.” Still, in the last few years, as the traditional business model has fallen apart, a number of journalists and scholars have begun to discuss possible solutions, including the once-taboo subject of government support. “People are feeling so unsettled,” says Overholser. “The good news is we’re in such a crisis that you can’t just sleepwalk through it anymore.”
Before we begin a discussion of the ways in which government might do more to ensure a healthy future for journalism, it is important to address a basic question that lies at the heart of the debate on solutions to the problems of the press: Given the rise of information on the Internet, what, exactly, is worth saving? The answer: ground-level reporting.
Daniel Hallin, chairman of the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, points out what he calls “one of the greatest ironies” of today’s vast media landscape: “In this so-called information age, we actually have fewer reporters now gathering the basic information on which the whole information society operates.” According to Hallin, the proliferation of media outlets and programming is largely occurring in two domains: commentary and entertainment. “The amount of serious information-gathering is actually going down,” he says. “Dramatically so.” Few Web sites independent of newspapers are doing serious newsgathering.
Yet with the business model for news in transition, mainstream media owners are cutting staff and reducing content, particularly hard-news coverage, in order to maintain the high profit margins newspapers have historically enjoyed. “The editorial costs of the average newspaper run from about nine to twelve percent,” says Robert Picard. “That’s nothing in comparison to the total costs of the newspaper, yet they’ve been bearing the brunt more and more.” Certainly the news industry needs to think about different business models (Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is a proponent of one in which consumers would pay for news as part of their monthly Internet subscription). But it would also be wise to consider the many ways that government could simply protect journalism from market pressures. I’d like to present some of them—not by way of endorsing one idea over another, but to spark a necessary discussion.