Say Uncle (Sam)

What would government tax subsidies mean for journalism?

In the current issue of The Nation, John Nichols and Robert McChesney make an argument for government intervention in American journalism’s economic model. “The old corporate media system choked on its own excess,” they write. “We should not seek to restore or re-create it. We have to move forward to a system that creates a journalism far superior to that of the recent past. We can do exactly that—but only if we recognize and embrace the necessity of government intervention.”

Their article goes on to argue for government tax subsidies for newspapers, in particular.

Let’s give all Americans an annual tax credit for the first $200 they spend on daily newspapers. The newspapers would have to publish at least five times per week and maintain a substantial “news hole,” say at least twenty-four broad pages each day, with less than 50 percent advertising. In effect, this means the government will pay for every citizen who so desires to get a free daily newspaper subscription, but the taxpayer gets to pick the newspaper—this is an indirect subsidy, because the government does not control who gets the money. This will buy time for our old media newsrooms—and for us citizens—to develop a plan to establish journalism in the digital era. We could see this evolving into a system to provide tax credits for online subscriptions as well.

None of these proposed subsidies favor or censor any particular viewpoint. The primary condition on media recipients of this stimulus subsidy would be a mild one: that they make at least 90 percent of their content immediately available free online. In this way, the subsidies would benefit citizens and taxpayers, expanding the public domain and providing the Internet with a rich vein of material available to all.

Whether or not you agree with Nichols and McChesney’s assumption that “old media newsrooms” are the institutions best equipped to “establish journalism in the digital era,” the idea of government intervention in the news business is worth discussing—it crops up now and again in the “how to save journalism” debate, and has recently gained some currency in both the House and the Senate. So we wonder what you think about the viability of government support for the news business, and about Nichols and McChesney’s tax subsidies specifically. How might they help journalism? How might they harm it? And would their costs outweigh their benefits?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.