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?
The strongest proposal we have seen has been developed by the economist Dean Baker and his brother Randy Baker over the past decade. (What is it with guys named Baker, anyway?) My proposal embellishes their core concept. For sake of discussion I will call it the “Citizenship News Voucher.” The idea is simple: every American adult gets a $200 voucher she can use to donate government money to any nonprofit news medium of her choice. She will indicate her choice on her tax return. If she does not file a tax return, a simple form will be available to use. She can split her $200 among several different qualifying nonprofit media. This program would be purely voluntary, like the tax-form check-offs for funding elections or protecting wildlife. A government agency, possibly operating out of the Internal Revenue Service, can be set up to allocate the funds and to determine eligibility—according to universal standards that err on the side of expanding rather than constraining the number of qualifying media. There will be some overhead and administration for the program, but it will not require a large regulatory body like the FCC.
This proposal borrows from the libertarian movement, in its recognition that vouchers can be used to give greater control over the expenditure of public tax dollars. Its genius, I believe, is to be found in a healthy combination of hostility to government control over news content and a belief in the power of individuals to make their own choices with a recognition of the public good nature of journalism.
This funding mechanism should apply to public, community and all other nonprofit broadcasters as well as Internet upstarts. For a medium that is not a nonprofit broadcaster to be eligible, it would have to be a not-for-profit, although that can assume a number of legal constructs, including 501(c)(3) or cooperative structures. The medium must do exclusively media content; it cannot be part of a larger organization or have any non-media operations. Everything the medium produces must be made available immediately upon publication on the Internet and made available for free to all. It will not be covered by copyright and will enter the public domain. (This would allow, for instance, a digital outlet to sell a print version of its work.) The government will not evaluate the content to see that the money is going toward journalism. Our assumption is that these criteria will effectively produce that result, and if there is some slippage so be it.
Qualifying media ought not, in our view, be permitted to accept advertising; this is a sector that is to have a direct and primary relationship with its audience. These media can accept tax-deductible donations from individuals or foundations to supplement their income. By banning advertising from public media and this new Internet sector, the pool of advertising that exists can be divvied up between existing and post-corporate newspapers and commercial media, especially commercial broadcasters. In my view, this will give commercial news media a better crack at finding a workable business model.
I would also suggest that for a medium to receive funds it would have to get commitments for at least $20,000 worth of vouchers. This will lessen fraud and also require anyone wishing to establish a medium to be serious enough to get at least 100 people to sign on. (In other words, you can’t just declare yourself a nonprofit news website and deposit the voucher in your bank account.)
So what will the Citizenship News Voucher program generate? It will have two objectives. First, it will be a means for public media organizations to dramatically increase their funding. Imagine a public TV station in a metropolitan area of 1 million people managed to get 50,000 of them to donate half of their Citizenship News Voucher to the station. That would be $5 million. That goes a long way toward staffing a quality newsroom. It also means that public and community broadcasters will have to earn their support beyond the foundation they are allocated by the government.