Second, the voucher system would provide a way for Web-journalism services to become self-sufficient and even have the funds to hire a significant number of full-time paid workers. Imagine a Web site in the blogosphere right now covering national politics that produces some great content and has hundreds of thousands of regular visitors, but it depends upon low-paid or volunteer labor and praying for advertising crumbs or begging for donations for what is invariably paltry levels of support. Now the Web site goes formally nonprofit, stops obsessing over advertising crumbs and appeals directly to its readers for their vouchers. Imagine this Web site getting 20,000 people to steer their vouchers into its accounts. That is $4 million, enough to have a well-paid staff of 50 full-time journalists as well as ancillary staffers. Consider what a Web news service could do with that. And then start thinking about how motivated the reporters and editors would be to break big stories, maintain high quality and keep attracting the vouchers.
Or imagine you live in a city with deplorable news coverage of your community or neighborhood, as more and more Americans do. If someone starts a local news medium and gets 2,000 people to give her group one-half of their vouchers, that provides a nice start-up budget of $200,000. For that money a group can have several reporters covering their turf, and build up a real following.
The benefits of the Citizenship News Voucher program are many. For instance, it gives the foundation community a coherent and necessary role to play. Rather than see themselves as being hit up in perpetuity to cover the operating costs of various Web-journalism ventures, foundations can do what they do best: they can help launch new ventures, fund them for three to five years, and then see if there is popular support for the venture in the form of Citizenship News Vouchers. In this model, philanthropists have much greater incentive to put money into journalism, because there is a way for their grants to lead to self-sustaining institutions.
This strategy also allows newcomers to enter the fray and hence encourages innovation. A group can raise start-up funds from donations or philanthropy, get started, and then appeal directly for voucher support. It produces intense competition because a medium cannot take its support for granted. It rewards initiative and punishes sloth. It is democratic because rich and poor get the same voucher. And the government has no control over who gets the money. It is an enormous public subsidy, but it is a libertarian’s dream: people can support whatever political viewpoints they prefer or do nothing at all. I won’t try and predict how effective the Citizenship News Voucher program would be. In a very real sense, the answer has to come from citizens and journalists, which is exactly as it should be.
What I do know, however, is that this approach will give public and community media as well as Internet news media an incentive to earn their support not from investors and advertisers but from the people they are trying to reach. And I also know that nearly every struggling new online journalism outfit I talk to would love to have an opportunity to compete for these funds. I have never explained the concept—in newspaper, radio and television interviews; in speeches and at forums—without being overwhelmed by the practical questions, vibrant ideas and enthusiasm that it sparks among journalists and citizens. That makes complete sense to us, as the voucher system rebuilds the lost link between journalists and the communities that sustain their journalism.
For this program to be accepted it will require two conditions that will be hard pills for some to swallow. First, people will have to accept that some of the vouchers are going to go to media that they may detest. The program requires that Americans embrace dissent in reality and not just rhetoric. Here I cannot help but recall the passionate commitment Jefferson and Madison had to promoting a diverse journalism, even when they often deplored its contents. At the same time Jefferson advocated massive postal and printing subsidies, and basked in the dissenting nature of American newspapers compared to those found elsewhere, he memorably stated, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
Second, the program may not develop exactly the type of journalism our greatest thinkers believe is necessary. The plan requires that there be faith in the judgment of the American people. Like my libertarian friends, this is a risk I am willing to take. My sense is that once people’s choices are direct and not filtered by advertising, good things will happen.