Ironically, the emergence of the Internet makes the survival of these publications even more important. As a forthcoming Columbia Journalism Review research report of the web activities of 665 publications demonstrates, significant amount of the original journalism and political material posted online comes from the websites associated with print publications. It provides much of the gist for the blogosphere. When these publications go down or cut back, the amount of original material online is reduced, to all our detriments. Consider my co-author John Nichols, who posts hundreds of original pieces on the Internet annually as part of his job as a staff writer for The Nation. These pieces are available for free to all comers, get reposted on numerous other large websites and get ample commentary. If The Nation ever closes its “old media” doors, Nichols will be out of a job and his blogging output will be cut back dramatically. There are thousands of similar stories online, and they all depend to some extent of the solvency of the “old media” that employ them. It is serendipitous but no less sublime that Washington’s, Madison’s and Jefferson’s beloved postal subsidies are generating so much valuable free material in the digital realm.
It is imperative that we craft lower postal rates –and soon— for small circulation publications with limited amounts of advertising. It is nonnegotiable that these publications, and American political culture, have this lifeline to make a healthy transition from the analog world to our digital future.
Having done all of the above, we still must face the hard truth that even non-profit or locally owned daily newspapers, not to mention periodicals with low-postage, do not have a credible business model that will allow them to employ the legions of working journalists a Fourth Estate requires. They produce a public good. Some may prosper, but if we want them to actually do journalism in significant amounts, subsidies will remain necessary.
Here we turn to a tax credit proposal by the late, great, and deeply missed Professor C. Edwin Baker of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the dominant First Amendment expert concerning freedom of the press for the past generation, and a passionate visionary with regard to journalism. Baker thought the government should, in effect, pay one-half the salary of any employed journalist up to $45,000 per reporter per year. The idea was to dramatically lower the costs of journalism. Ed was convinced fraud could be minimized, although I suspect it would need a great deal of work to make it functional.
Ed Baker and I disagreed on one key point. In his view, this journalist tax credit plan should apply to all news media, commercial or otherwise. I prefer the idea of leaving the commercial news media unsubsidized, except for the postal subsidy, and having the Baker tax credit go to non-profit media. A similar debate emanates from the “Write for America” program I suggest above—should this program subsidize labor for commercial concerns? This is the type of policy debate we need to have, and where we need more study. If it proves effective, something like the Ed Baker proposal could go a long way toward giving resources to America’s newsrooms without having the hand of government influence content.
All of these measures start with existing structures and institutions and attempt to make them workable in the transition to the coming digital era. They would go a long way toward filling cyberspace with a deep and rich layer of journalism, far greater than exists at present. This would be tremendous grist for citizen journalists and bloggers to work with as they critique and develop news stories. They are a necessary start, and well-funded they could do wonders for our journalism, but they really do not get to the heart of the matter: capitalizing upon the democratic and revolutionary potential of digital technologies for journalism, and democracy.
A great deal of innovation and promise remains unfulfilled. Digital journalism has a wealth of talented people and brilliant ideas and a poverty of resources. Even our best reporters and writers are having a hard time making a living online, and those that are able to get by must continually please funders and advertisers. There is no reason to expect this to change in the foreseeable future.