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.
Ultimately I believe we need to meet the tectonic shift in media with a similarly bold policy approach to the creation of journalism. We need a funding mechanism to spawn viable independent Internet journalism, one that can provide the basis for a stable industry. The trick is to provide ample funding but not to have the government control the allocation of the funds or create a bureaucracy that doles out funds to its preferred media. We need a system that is competitive, accountable and open to innovation. Advertisers and foundations are not up to the job, and the idea of converting computers into vending machines is unappealing and impractical.
So what policy solution is there?