For this program to be accepted it will require two conditions that will be hard pills for some to swallow. First, people will have to accept that some of the vouchers are going to go to media that they may detest. The program requires that Americans embrace dissent in reality and not just rhetoric. Here I cannot help but recall the passionate commitment Jefferson and Madison had to promoting a diverse journalism, even when they often deplored its contents. At the same time Jefferson advocated massive postal and printing subsidies, and basked in the dissenting nature of American newspapers compared to those found elsewhere, he memorably stated, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
Second, the program may not develop exactly the type of journalism our greatest thinkers believe is necessary. The plan requires that there be faith in the judgment of the American people. Like my libertarian friends, this is a risk I am willing to take. My sense is that once people’s choices are direct and not filtered by advertising, good things will happen.
This idea is not set in stone. Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman is developing an alternative version of this idea, and possibly others, in a forthcoming book; he may well have a superior model, or at least key ways to improve it. The point is, again, this is the type of study and debate we need to have, and soon.
As Dean Baker puts it, this is an economic model that recognizes in the Internet era that old-fashioned media economics no longer work. You can’t produce a digital product, take it to market and sell it. And you can’t get advertisers to bankroll your operation. The rational policy solution is to give media producers–journalists—money up front, and then make what they produce available to all for free online. It will fill the Web with large amounts of professional-quality journalism, and provide a genuine independent journalism sector to complement post-corporate newspapers, public media and a retooled commercial news media. Those will be the four legs of our new media table.
Ultimately, the legs may be rearranged. More weight may go on one than another. Journalists may flee commercial media and start nonprofit Web sites. Post-corporate digital newspapers might be displaced by public-media Web sites. A new generation of Web-savvy editors might leap from medium to medium, perhaps creating journalistic platforms that we cannot yet imagine. The twists and turns are inevitable and should be welcomed rather than feared. If there are sources of funding, journalists will innovate and the people will decide what works. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly democratic. Above all, in the final analysis, this approach provides a far better guarantee that we will have great journalism in the 21st century than hoping against hope that the market will somehow sort things out.
I will not take up the matter of where the funds to pay for journalism should come from. In our book Nichols and I suggest a number of taxes and fees that could be used to generate the necessary funds. Since publication, some astute readers have criticized our suggestions and provided some possibly stronger alternatives. In general we think there is merit is having a segregated fund that is not subject to political tampering.
At the same time, we should not get hung up on the point of “paying as we go.” When a nation is under military attack, it does whatever is necessary to defend itself. It does not appoint a commission to study whether the nation can afford a military defense and ask the commission to report back in five to ten years time. We need to approach the crisis of journalism with the same sense of urgency because the stakes are exactly the same: whether or not this great American experiment in self-government will survive to another generation. The good news is that if we respond with the same vision and dedication as our founders, we can create the greatest and most diverse journalism our nation or the world has ever seen. History has placed the ball directly in our court.