Saying Uncle (Sam)

A new study reminds us that media subsidies are centuries-old--and fading

If you want to have some fun at the next future-of-news conference, just shout out, to a roomful of media analysts, “government subsidy!” All manner of mayhem—debates, shouting matches, fistfights—will likely ensue.

Of the hot-button issues in the How Will We Pay for It? Conversation—paywalls or no walls, content bundled or un-, etc.—“government subsidy” is perhaps the hottest. And with good reason: government intervention in the news is something that should give journalists plenty of pause. But as we continue to come to terms with the inadequacy of newsgathering’s old business models, subsidy is increasingly under debate—which is to say, increasingly under consideration. Which means that it is increasingly crucial for us to understand both subsidies’ past and their potential in the present—not in high-level, philosophical terms, but in specific, historical ones.

Enter Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal of USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, who today are releasing a study of the subsidies that have assisted the American press since the colonial era. The report analyzes some of the policies enacted to benefit news outlets, from postal rate discounts and tax breaks to public notices and government advertising. It also documents cutbacks made to those subsidies across several sectors: overall, government support for newspapers and magazines, which totaled some $4 billion (in today’s dollars) in 1970, has fallen to less than $2 billion today—during a time when nearly every publication is struggling to survive.

In many ways, Westphal says, the study is about “setting the record straight” when it comes to subsidies. He and Cowan, in producing their report, wanted to demonstrate that “even in the commercial media—the commercial press, in particular—the government had played a role as supporter with either direct or indirect subsidies. And that that had been true even at the founding of the country—and even before the founding.”

When thinking about the part such subsidies might continue to play in the current landscape of American journalism, the study says, we need to consider two questions. First: “Is a new form of government intervention prudent, and necessary to ensure that Americans have access to the kind of information they need in a democracy?” And, second: “If there is such a need, is government capable, amid such overwhelming change in the news business, of making choices that will make things better?”

Though the report stops short of fully answering those questions—the idea, its authors say, is to provide a framework for thinking about such proposals, rather than presenting the proposals themselves—it does suggest some guiding principles for government involvement in news:

“First and foremost, do no harm. A cycle of powerful innovation is under way. To the extent possible, government should avoid retarding the emergence of new models of news-gathering.”

“Second, the government should help promote innovation, as it did when the Department of Defense funded the research that created the Internet or when NASA funded the creation of satellites that made cable TV and direct radio and TV possible.”

“Third, for commercial media, government-supported mechanisms that are content neutral — such as copyright protections, postal subsidies and taxes — are preferable to those that call upon the government to fund specific news outlets, publications or programs.”

These are sentiments that echo similar reports exploring the tantalizing-meets-terrifying notion of government subsidy—including “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” Columbia’s examination of the role of the government. And the report’s findings, it’s worth mentioning, also relate nicely to the historian Paul Starr’s body of work (The Creation of the Media, etc.). “It’s not an outlier,” Westphal says of the report. “It’s not like, wow, this is really a radical proposal.”

“Our point is that it’s entirely legitimate for the government to be involved” in the news—“because it’s been involved throughout American history.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.