Likewise, the Internet emphasizes the public good aspect of journalism because it makes the content easily accessible online with virtually no marginal cost. Unlike a private good, if I access a news story it does not mean you cannot access the exact same news story and it does not undermine my consumption if you do so, or increases the producer’s costs. That is unlike a traditional private good, like a hamburger or a pair of socks. If I have a hamburger, you cannot consume the same hamburger without my losing my satisfaction in consuming said hamburger. With news stories online, on the other hand, if anything it increases my enjoyment knowing others are sharing the same story, and I have nothing to lose by making it available to them. And it costs nothing to make the story available to others. This is a recipe for disaster for traditional news media business models.
In short, fitting a commercial news media system into the digital world is an unnatural fit, which is why savvy investors are jumping ship. They would be irrational to do otherwise.
Understood this way, how should we proceed? The first place to look is at our own extraordinary history. At our founding through the first century of our history, Americans held two simultaneous understandings of freedom of the press. First: that the government should not censor or interfere with the press, or someone’s right to launch a news medium, something we embrace to this day. Second: that the first duty of the government was to guarantee that a free press system actually exists. Unless a credible and functioning press system existed, the right to have it uncensored by government was a hollow right. To the founders and the first several generations of Americans these were complementary, not contradictory, values. The initial champions, on both counts, were Jefferson and James Madison.
There was no notion that “the market,” unsubsidized, would produce sufficient journalism; the idea was unthinkable until the late 19th or early 20th century, when, with the striking explosion in advertising, commercial interests began to prosper.
To that end, in the first generations of our nation’s history the federal government instituted extraordinarily large postal and printing subsidies with the explicit goal of broadening and deepening the amount of newspapers and periodical in the United States. These were brilliant subsidies that did not favor a single party or viewpoint; indeed, they made much of the abolitionist press possible while also supporting pro-slavery publications. If the United States federal government devoted the same percentage of GDP to subsidizing journalism today that it did in the 1840s, for example, the expenditure would be around $30 billion. Indeed the one area that distinguished the American government from European governments at the time was its commitment to creating a huge and credible democratic press system.
As Professor David Westphal demonstrated in his important and trailblazing research, government subsidies for journalism remain important to this day, though they are nowhere near as important as they were in our first century, before advertising emerged to mask the public-good nature of journalism.
In every US Supreme Court decision on freedom of the press, the founding principle that it was the duty of the government to see that a credible free press system actually exists has been reaffirmed. Otherwise the governing system cannot succeed. As Justice Potter Stewart put it, the Free Press guarantee is a “structural part” of the constitution. If we care for what the Supreme Court says, our constitution not only condones public subsidies of journalism, it requires them.
The primary concern we all have when government gets into the business of subsidizing and creating a free press system is how do we keep the heavy hand of the state from censoring, dominating and dictating the content of the news to suits its own interests? How do we preserve an independent free press at the same time as we subsidize journalism?