What about the threat of governments using these subsidies to limit democracy and our freedoms? According to the annual ranking of The Economist magazine, those countries with the largest public media and press subsidies are the freest and most democratic nations in the world, ahead of the United States. According to Freedom House, those nations with the largest government press subsidies also have the most flourishing and uncensored private news media, again far ahead of the United States. Indeed, recent research demonstrates that as press subsidies have increased in European nations, the content of the news has become more adversarial toward the party in power and the government in general.
In sum, government press subsidies can work, and come with sufficient protection from government meddling. We can have our cake and eat it too. We can study other nations as well as our own history, and adapt the lessons to our current conditions and technologies. We will have to spend a great deal more than we currently do, but possibly not as much as we did in the past or some European countries do today. One advantage of the Internet is that it has lowered costs in some areas sharply. The one area it has not eliminated, however, is compensated labor. Any way you slice it, compensated labor in competing independent newsrooms is the basis of a strong free press. We are learning the hard way that you get what you pay for.
I have taken the time to provide this background regarding the current crisis and our own history in order to contextualize and justify what follows, but also to emphasize that I offer this to begin the conversation, not end it. Everything that follows is in rough form, and none of the details have been ironed out. I present them as broad brush strokes, and I ask that they be understood and criticized in that manner. I suspect if the people in this room, in this town, in this country, devoted themselves to establishing great public subsidies for journalism we could surpass anything John Nichols and I have developed or adapted. That is the job before us all if we are to address the crisis in a satisfactory manner.
Even in this crisis, I do not favor any sort of subsidies to “bail out” the commercial firms that have led the charge in consolidating, downsizing, hyper-commercializing, trivializing and eliminating newsrooms. And I doubt many Americans would have much of a taste for a plateful of corporate welfare either. Likewise, I am not platform-centric. This is not an old media vs. new media debate. My assumption is that all media have a digital component, if they are not entirely digital, and that we are in the midst of long historical process that will lead to an almost entirely digital news media. But it is a long process and how we manage the transition will largely determine where we end up.
It is already self-evident that the Internet and digital technologies provide extraordinary opportunities to democratize, improve and transform our journalism for the better, even revolutionize it. But we cannot develop that great potential without a commitment of resources.
The starting points for addressing the crisis are four “shovel-ready” proposals that can stop the bleeding and get journalists back to work covering their communities. To be clear, I speak today for myself. I do not speak for Free Press, the media reform organization that I cofounded. I am but a board member there.
First, we should immediately increase funding to public, community and school broadcasting – in my mind, by a factor of at least ten— with the express designation that the funding go toward journalism, especially at the local level. Remember, the United Kingdom’s per capita funding of public broadcasting is nearly 70 times greater than ours – in this context, a factor of ten is modest. In numerous communities there are few journalists remaining, or those that do remain are overmatched by the enormity of the beats they have been left to cover. Elections are going uncovered, not to mention the less sexy beats in city, county and state government where power is exercised and funds are allocated. Public and community stations are uniquely positioned to get reporters back to work. I use the term “broadcasting” but everything produced would go online and be available for free immediately. We should encourage distinct systems for NPR, PBS, community broadcasting, public access, low-power FM and school broadcasting. We would never countenance a commercial monopoly over a community’s newsrooms; we should see that there are competitive newsrooms in the nonprofit broadcasting sector. Competition and pluralism are good everywhere when it comes to news media.