By John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney
(This article appeared in the January 25, 2010, edition of The Nation. The Nation is available at www.thenation.com.)
The founders of the American experiment were even by their own measures imperfect democrats. But they understood something about sustaining democracy that their successors seem to have forgotten. Everyone agrees that a free society requires a free press. But a free press without the resources to compensate those who gather and analyze information, and to distribute that information widely and in an easily accessible form, is like a seed without water or sunlight. It was with this understanding that Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and their contemporaries instituted elaborate systems of postal and printing subsidies to assure that freedom of the press would never be an empty promise; to that end they guaranteed what Madison described as “a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people…[that] is favorable to liberty.”
Two centuries after Madison wrote those words, American news media are being steered off the cliff by investors and corporate managers who soured on their “properties” when the economic downturn dried up what was left of their advertising bonanza. They are taking journalism with them. Newsrooms are shrinking and disappearing altogether, along with statehouse, Washington and foreign bureaus. And with them goes the circulation of news and ideas that is indispensable to liberty. This is a dire moment for democracy, and it requires a renewal of one of America’s oldest understandings: that a free people can govern themselves only if they have access to independent information about the issues of the day and the excesses of the powerful, and that it is the duty of government to guarantee both the promise and the reality of a free press.
When we recommended government subsidies last year in a Nation cover article (“The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers,” April 6), some publishers and pundits objected, forgetting their Jeffersonian roots and arguing, with no sense of irony, that policies promoting diversity and robust debate would foster totalitarianism. Even well-intended Congressional hearings on the crisis avoided discussion of this logical response.
But as 2009 wore on and the crisis extended-with the venerable Christian Science Monitor cutting print production from daily to weekly, newspapers in Seattle and Ann Arbor ceasing print publication to exist solely online, with papers in Denver, Tucson and other cities closing altogether, and with talk of closures from San Francisco to Boston-the urgency of the moment, and the recognition that journalism would not be reborn on the Internet or saved by foundation grants, made it harder to dismiss subsidies. By year’s end, the Columbia Journalism Review was highlighting a report by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson that proposed requiring “broadcasters, Internet service providers, and telecom users to pay into a fund that would be used to support local accountability journalism in communities around the country.” CJR called the idea a “radical suggestion.”
If the rather modest proposal by Downie and Schudson is “radical,” then it is merely a fraction of the radicalism of America’s founding. And like so many founding precepts, it is a radicalism that has long since been accepted as common sense by the rest of the world. Now Americans must re-embrace that common sense if we are to have journalism worthy of the Republic’s promise and sufficient to meet its needs. This is an unavoidable reality. No reasonable case can be made that journalism will rebound as the economy recovers from a recession that accelerated but certainly did not cause the crisis confronting newspapers-or that a “next big thing” will arrive as soon as news organizations develop good Internet business plans. Many of the nation’s largest papers are in bankruptcy or teetering on the brink, and layoffs continue at an alarming rate. The entirety of paid journalism, even its online variant, is struggling. There are far fewer working journalists per 100,000 Americans today than existed one, two or three decades ago. At current rates of decline, 2020 will make 2010 look like a golden age. When the Federal Trade Commission held its unprecedented two-day conference on the state of journalism in December, the operative term was “collapse.” Conversely, the ratio of PR flacks to working journalists has skyrocketed, as spin replaces news.
The implications are clear: If our policy-makers do nothing, if “business as usual” prevails, we face a future where there will be relatively few paid journalists working in competing newsrooms with editors, fact-checkers, travel budgets and institutional support. Vast areas of public life and government activity will take place in the dark-as is already the case in many statehouses across the country. Independent and insightful coverage of the basic workings of local, state and federal government, and of our many interventions and occupations abroad, is disappearing as rapidly as the rainforests. The political implications are dire. Just as a brown planet cannot renew itself, so an uninformed electorate cannot renew democracy. Popular rule doesn’t work without an informed citizenry, and an informed citizenry cannot exist without credible journalism.
This is more than academic theory; it is how the Supreme Court has interpreted the matter. As Justice Potter Stewart explained in 1974, the framers believed the First Amendment mandated the existence of a Fourth Estate because our experiment in constitutional democracy cannot succeed without it. That is hardly a controversial position, nor one that is necessarily left wing. It should be inviting to readers of the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, as markets cannot work effectively or efficiently unless investors, managers, workers and consumers have the credible information produced by serious journalism. Moreover, political decisions about economic issues will respect Main Street concerns only if citizens are kept abreast of the issues by independent news media. American officials urged Asian economies during the financial crisis of the late 1990s to develop independent media or suffer from the corruption and stagnation of “crony capitalism.” We need to take a dose of our own medicine, and fast. Unfortunately, misconceptions about the crisis and the proper relationship between government and media warp the debate. Addressing these misconceptions, and getting beyond them, will be the great challenge of 2010.
The most dangerous misconception has to do with journalism itself. Journalism is a classic “public good”-something society needs and people want but market forces are now incapable of generating in sufficient quality or quantity. The institution should be understood the way we understand universal public education, military defense, public health and transportation infrastructure. The public-good nature of journalism has been largely disguised for the past century because advertising bankrolled much of the news, for better and for worse, in its efforts to reach consumers. Those days are over, as advertisers no longer need or seek to attach their appeals to journalism to connect with target audiences. Indeed, to the extent commercial media can scrap journalism standards to make the news “product” more attractive to advertisers, the cure will be worse than the disease.
This takes us to the second great misconception: that the crisis in journalism was created by the rise of the Internet and the current recession. In fact, the crisis began in earnest in the 1970s and was well under way by the 1990s. It owes far more to the phenomenon of media corporations maximizing profits by turning newsrooms into “profit centers,” lowering quality and generally trivializing journalism. The hollowing out of the news and alienation of younger news consumers was largely disguised by the massive profits these firms recorded while they were stripping newsrooms for parts. But that’s no longer possible. The Internet, by making news free online and steering advertisers elsewhere, merely accelerated a long-term process and made it irreversible. Unless we grasp the structural roots of the problem, we will fail to generate viable structural solutions.
By ignoring the public-good nature of journalism and the roots of the current crisis, too many contemporary observers continue to fantasize that it is just a matter of time before a new generation of entrepreneurs creates a financially viable model of journalism using digital technologies. By this reasoning, all government needs to do is clear the path with laxer regulations, perhaps some tax credits and a lot of cheerleading. Even David Carr of the New York Times, who has consistently recognized the point of retaining newsrooms and journalism, falls into the trap of assuming that the “cabals of bright young things” who are swarming New York might create a “fresh, ferocious wave” of new media that will turn the Internet from killer of media into savior. Carr’s vision may work for entertainment media, but it is a nonstarter for journalism. As Matthew Hindman’s new book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, convincingly demonstrates, the Internet is not some “wild west” incubator, where a new and more democratic journalism is being hatched. Internet traffic mostly gravitates to sites that aggregate and reproduce existing journalism, and the Web is dominated by a handful of players, not unlike old media. Indeed, they are largely the same players.
There is no business model or combination of business models that will create a journalistic renaissance on the Web. Even if the market and new technologies were to eventually solve journalism’s problems, the notion that we must go without journalism for a decade or two while Wall Street figures out how to make a buck strikes us, frankly, as suicidal.
There will be commercial news media in the future, and the right of anyone to start a business that does journalism should remain inviolable. But there is no evidence that the news media democracy requires will be paid for by advertisers or subscribers. Nor will they be supported by foundations or billionaires; there simply are not enough to cover the massive need. And while it might be comforting to think we can rely on tax-deductible citizen donations to fund the news media we need, there is scant evidence enough money can be generated from this source.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman was right when he told December’s FTC workshop on journalism, “This is a policy issue. Government is going to have to be involved in one way or another.” Journalism, like other public goods, is going to require substantial public subsidy if it is to exist at a level necessary for self-government to succeed. The question, then, is not, Should there be subsidies? but, How do we get subsidies right?”
To do that, policymakers, journalists and citizens must take an honest look at the history of journalism subsidies here and abroad, and they cannot cling dogmatically to the Manichaean view that press subsidies inexorably lead to tyranny.
Even those sympathetic to subsidies do not grasp just how prevalent they have been in American history. From the days of Washington, Jefferson and Madison through those of Andrew Jackson to the mid-19th century, enormous printing and postal subsidies were the order of the day. The need for them was rarely questioned, which is perhaps one reason they have been so easily overlooked. They were developed with the intention of expanding the quantity, quality and range of journalism–and they were astronomical by today’s standards. If for example, the United States had devoted the same percentage of its GDP to journalism subsidies in 2009 as it did in the 1840s, we calculate that the allocation would have been $30 billion. In contrast, the federal subsidy last year for all of public broadcasting, not just journalism, was around $400 million.
The experience of America’s first century demonstrates that subsidies of the sort we suggest pose no threat to democratic discourse; in fact, they foster it. Postal subsidies historically applied to all newspapers, regardless of viewpoint. Printing subsidies were spread among all major parties and factions. Of course, some papers were rabidly partisan, even irresponsible. But serious historians of the era are unanimous in holding that the extraordinary and diverse print culture that resulted from these subsidies built a foundation for the growth and consolidation of American democracy. Subsidies made possible much of the abolitionist press that led the fight against slavery.
Our research suggests that press subsidies may well have been the second greatest expense of the federal budget of the early Republic, following the military. This commitment to nurturing and sustaining a free press was what was truly distinctive about America compared with European nations that had little press subsidy, fewer newspapers and magazines per capita, and far less democracy. This history was forgotten by the late 19th century, when commercial interests realized that newspaper publishing bankrolled by advertising was a goldmine, especially in monopolistic markets. Huge subsidies continued to the present, albeit at lower rates than during the first few generations of the Republic. But today’s direct and indirect subsidies–which include postal subsidies, business tax deductions for advertising, subsidies for journalism education, legal notices in papers, free monopoly licenses to scarce and lucrative radio and TV channels, and lax enforcement of antitrust laws–have been pocketed by commercial interests even as they and their minions have lectured us on the importance of keeping the hands of government off the press. It was the hypocrisy of the current system–with subsidies and government policies made ostensibly in the public interest but actually carved out behind closed doors to benefit powerful commercial interests–that fueled the extraordinary growth of the media reform movement over the past decade.
The argument for restoring the democracy-sustaining subsidies of old–as opposed to the corporation-sustaining ones of recent decades–need not rest on models from two centuries ago. When the United States occupied Germany and Japan after World War II, Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur instituted lavish subsidies to spawn a vibrant, independent press in both nations. The generals recognized that a docile press had been the handmaiden of fascism and that a stable democracy requires diverse and competitive news media. They encouraged news media that questioned and dissented, even at times criticized U.S. occupation forces. They did not gamble on the “free market” magically producing the desired outcome.
In moments of crisis, our wisest leaders have always recognized the indispensable role of journalism in democracy. We are in such a crisis now. It is the character of the crisis, and the urgency of the moment, that should make Americans impatient with blanket condemnations of subsidies. State support is vital to higher education; on rare occasions, professors have been harassed by governors or legislators over the content of their research or lectures. But only an extreme libertarian or a nihilist would argue to end all public support of higher education to eliminate the threat of this kind of government abuse. Likewise, the government does not tax church property or income, which is in effect a massive subsidy of organized religion. Yet the government has not favored particular religions or required people to hold religious views.
As for the notion that public broadcasting is a more propagandistic or insidious force than commercial broadcasting because of the small measure of direct state support it receives, the evidence suggests otherwise. When the United States geared up to invade Iraq in 2002, commercial broadcast news media, with only a few brave exceptions, parroted Bush administration talking points for war that were easily identified as lies. In contrast, public and community broadcast coverage, while far from perfect, featured many more critical voices at exactly the moment a democracy requires a feisty Fourth Estate. Not surprisingly, public broadcasting is the most consistently trusted major news source, with Americans telling pollsters it deserves far greater public funding.
Perhaps the strongest contemporary case for journalism subsidies is provided by other democracies. The evidence shows that subsidies do not infringe on liberty or justice; they correlate with the indicators of a good society. In The Economist’s annual Democracy Index, which evaluates nations on the basis of the functioning of government, civic participation, civil liberties, political culture and pluralism, the six top-ranked nations maintain some of the most generous journalism subsidies on the planet. If the United States, No. 18 in the index, spent the same per capita on public media and journalism subsidies as Sweden and Norway, which rank 1 and 2, we would be spending as much as $30 billion a year. Sweden and Norway are also in the top tier of the pro-business Legatum Group’s Prosperity Index, which measures health, individual freedom, security, the quality of governance and transparency, in addition to material wealth. The United States ranks ninth.
The evidence is also clear that huge journalism subsidies and strong public media need not open the door to censorship or threaten private and commercial media. Consider the annual evaluation from Freedom House, the pro-private media organization that annually ranks international press freedom. It has the keenest antennas for government infringement of private press freedoms and routinely places nondemocratic and communist nations in its lowest, “not free” category. (It ranks Venezuela, for example–highly regarded by some on the democratic left for its commitment to elections and an open society as well as its wide-ranging adversarial media–as having a “not free” press.) Strikingly, Freedom House ranks the heavy subsidizing nations of Northern Europe in the top six spots on its 2008 list of nations with the freest news media. The United States ties for 21st. Research by communications professor Daniel Hallin demonstrates that increases in subsidies in Northern Europe led not to a docile and uncritical news media but to a “more adversarial press.” In short, massive press subsidies can promote democratic political cultures and systems.
But must Americans pay $30 billion a year to get the job done right? Possibly not. Digital technologies have dramatically lowered production and distribution costs. Still, the main source of great journalism is compensated human labor, and, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. We’re longtime advocates of citizen journalism and the blogosphere, but our experience tells us that volunteer labor is insufficient to meet America’s journalism needs. The digital revolution has the capacity to radically democratize and improve journalism, but only if there is a foundation of newsrooms–all of which will be digital or have digital components–with adequately paid staff who interact with and provide material for the blogosphere.
The moral of the story is clear: journalism and press subsidies are the price of civilization. To deliver this public good in sufficient measure to sustain democracy, it must be treated as we treat national security. No one would dare suggest that our military defense could be adequately covered by volunteer labor, pledge drives, bake sales, silent auctions and foundation grants. The same is true for journalism. Cautious proponents of press subsidies think in terms of nickels and dimes, but we need to think in terms of billions. Columbia Journalism School professor Todd Gitlin got it right: “We’re rapidly running out of alternatives to public finance… It’s time to move to the next level and entertain a grown-up debate among concrete ideas.”
How can we best spawn a vibrant, independent and competitive press without ceding government control over content? There are models, historic and international, from which we can borrow. No one-size-fits-all solution will suffice, since all forms of support have biases built into them. But if citizens spend as much time considering this issue as our corporate media executives and investors do trying to privatize, wall off and commercialize the Internet, journalism and democracy will win out.
In our new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, we offer proposals for long-term subsidies to spawn independent digital journalism. But we do not claim to have all the answers. What we claim–what we know–is that it is now imperative that emergency measures be proposed, debated and implemented. People need to see tangible examples of “public good” interventions, or the discussion about renewing journalism will amount to little more than fiddling while Rome burns. The point now is to generate popular participation in and support for a small-d democratic response.
The starting point could be a debate about “bailouts” to keep struggling commercial news media, especially newspapers and magazines, afloat. As a rule, we oppose bailing out or subsidizing commercial news media. We believe subsidies should go primarily to nonprofit and noncommercial media. We are not doctrinaire on this point and believe it should be subject to debate, especially for short-term, emergency measures. If subsidies do go to commercial interests, the public needs to get something of substance in return. But the lion’s share of subsidies must go now and in the future to developing and expanding the nonprofit and noncommercial sector. Journalism needs an institutional structure that comports with its status as a public good.
What are we talking about? For starters, spending on public and community broadcasting should increase dramatically, with the money going primarily to journalism, especially on the local level. We never thought one commercial newsroom was satisfactory for an entire community; why should we regard it as acceptable to have a single non-commercial newsroom serve an entire community? Let’s also have AmeriCorps put thousands of young people to work, perhaps as journalists on start-up digital “publications” covering underserved communities nationwide. This would quickly put unemployed journalists to work. Let’s also craft legislation to expedite the transition of failing daily newspapers into solvent nonprofit or low-profit entities. It is healthy for communities to have general news media that cover all the relevant news and draw everyone together, in addition to specialized media. Shifting newspapers from high-profit to low-profit or nonprofit ownership allows them to keep publishing as they, and we, complete the transit from old media to new.
Americans will embrace some of these ideas. They will reject others. The point is to get a debate going, to put proposals forward, to think big and to act with a sense of urgency. Let’s assume, for the sake of journalism and democracy, that there will be subsidies. Then all we must do is put them to work in the same spirit and toward the same end as did the founders.