This idea is not set in stone. Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman is developing an alternative version of this idea, and possibly others, in a forthcoming book; he may well have a superior model, or at least key ways to improve it. The point is, again, this is the type of study and debate we need to have, and soon.

As Dean Baker puts it, this is an economic model that recognizes in the Internet era that old-fashioned media economics no longer work. You can’t produce a digital product, take it to market and sell it. And you can’t get advertisers to bankroll your operation. The rational policy solution is to give media producers–journalists—money up front, and then make what they produce available to all for free online. It will fill the Web with large amounts of professional-quality journalism, and provide a genuine independent journalism sector to complement post-corporate newspapers, public media and a retooled commercial news media. Those will be the four legs of our new media table.

Ultimately, the legs may be rearranged. More weight may go on one than another. Journalists may flee commercial media and start nonprofit Web sites. Post-corporate digital newspapers might be displaced by public-media Web sites. A new generation of Web-savvy editors might leap from medium to medium, perhaps creating journalistic platforms that we cannot yet imagine. The twists and turns are inevitable and should be welcomed rather than feared. If there are sources of funding, journalists will innovate and the people will decide what works. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly democratic. Above all, in the final analysis, this approach provides a far better guarantee that we will have great journalism in the 21st century than hoping against hope that the market will somehow sort things out.

I will not take up the matter of where the funds to pay for journalism should come from. In our book Nichols and I suggest a number of taxes and fees that could be used to generate the necessary funds. Since publication, some astute readers have criticized our suggestions and provided some possibly stronger alternatives. In general we think there is merit is having a segregated fund that is not subject to political tampering.

At the same time, we should not get hung up on the point of “paying as we go.” When a nation is under military attack, it does whatever is necessary to defend itself. It does not appoint a commission to study whether the nation can afford a military defense and ask the commission to report back in five to ten years time. We need to approach the crisis of journalism with the same sense of urgency because the stakes are exactly the same: whether or not this great American experiment in self-government will survive to another generation. The good news is that if we respond with the same vision and dedication as our founders, we can create the greatest and most diverse journalism our nation or the world has ever seen. History has placed the ball directly in our court.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

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The Editors