From its beginning, the U.S. government has enacted laws providing support for the news media, with varying consequences. In the year following enactment of the First Amendment, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1792 that put the postal system on a permanent foundation and authorized a subsidy for newspapers sent through the mail, as many were at the time. Those early newspapers also could mail copies to one another free of charge, creating the first collaborative news reporting. This subsidy assisted the distribution of news across the growing country for many years. While the First Amendment forbade the federal government from abridging freedom of the press, the founders’ commitment to broad circulation of public information produced policies that made a free press possible.
Nearly two centuries later, the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, in a specific exception to antitrust laws, allowed newspapers in the same city to form joint operating agreements to share revenue and costs in what proved to be a futile attempt to prevent single newspaper monopolies in most cities. This intervention did not work as intended, and most joint operating agreements ended with just one of the newspapers surviving.
An antitrust exemption that would allow newspapers to act together to seek payment for the digital distribution of their news would not be any wiser or do much more to support independent reporting. Antitrust laws forbid industries from setting prices in concert, which we do not think is desirable or necessary for newspapers. Individually, newspapers are already contemplating various ways to charge for digital content, and they do not need an antitrust exemption to continue.
We are not advocating or discouraging specific ways for news organizations to seek payment for digital content. We believe the marketplace will determine whether any of the many experiments will ultimately be successful. And we believe that managers of news organizations are best positioned to shape and test responses to them. For example, newspapers should develop detailed information about their digital audience to sell more targeted, and higher-priced, advertising to accompany specific digital content, while protecting individual readers’ privacy. They also should experiment with digital commerce that does not conflict with their news reporting, such as facilitating the purchase of books they review. To borrow a phrase from another digital news context, we see a long tail of possible revenue sources—payment for some kinds of unique digital content, online commerce, higher print subscription prices, even new print products—being added to diminished but still significant advertising revenues.
There is unlikely to be any single new economic model for supporting news reporting. Many newspapers can and will find ways to survive in print and online, with new combinations of reduced resources. But they will no longer produce the kinds of revenues or profits that had subsidized large reporting staffs, regardless of what new business models they evolve. The days of a kind of news media paternalism or patronage that produced journalism in the public interest, whether or not it contributed to the bottom line, are largely gone. American society must take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment—as society has, at much greater expense, for public needs like education, health care, scientific advancement, and cultural preservation—through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy, and government policy.
The failure of much of the public broadcasting system to provide significant local news reporting reflects longstanding neglect of this responsibility.
Our recommendations are intended to support independent, original, and credible news reporting, especially local and accountability reporting, across all media in communities throughout the United States. Rather than depending primarily on newspapers and their waning reporting resources, each sizeable American community should have a range of diverse sources of news reporting. They should include a variety and mix of commercial and nonprofit news organizations that can both compete and collaborate with one another. They should be adapting traditional journalistic forms to the multimedia, interactive, real-time capabilities of digital communication, sharing the reporting and distribution of news with citizens, bloggers, and aggregators.
To support diverse sources of independent news reporting, we specifically recommend: