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.
Second, we are in the process of losing an entire generation to journalism. I can speak from personal experience as a college professor and after traveling this nation far and wide speaking to young people for the past few months that there are tens of thousands of talented young people eager to pursue careers in journalism who are about to dive headfirst into a swimming pool emptied of water. Once they are gone it will be vastly more difficult if not impossible to get them to return. We should launch a “Write for America” or “News AmeriCorps” type program to subsidize thousands of young journalists for a year or two after college working for news media around the country. In some states, like Maryland, unpaid college students are providing a significant part of the coverage of state government to local newspapers. We need what those young people are doing and we need to get them paid jobs. A “Write for America” program, which would cost little in the current scheme of things, would go a long way toward providing that bridge from a good education to a good job—a bridge that currently does not exist.