A fresh crop of desperate bulletins from the nation’s newsrooms, which are shuttering and downsizing in unprecedented numbers, is stirring debate over what journalists until now have considered the worst option for keeping America’s newsrooms open – government subsidies and supports.
It has finally come to this: an emerging consensus in the journalism profession that the nation’s free press – our most important government watchdog – needs some level of government bailout.
Total job loss in the U.S. newspaper industry has been about 40 percent since 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In real numbers, roughly 14,000 reporters and editors – about a fourth of the nation’s total – having lost their jobs since 2000 as the Internet has drained away advertisers and readers.
“This is a dire moment for democracy,” write the progressive media critics John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney in a new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. “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.”
Which leads Nichols and McChesney to their prescription: “It is the duty of government to guarantee both the promise and the reality of a free press.”
About $30 billion a year in subsidies should do the trick, they say, with the money spent on massive increases for local news startups; an AmeriCorps-style project putting thousands of young people to work in digital newsrooms; and a nationwide project to transition failing commercial news ventures into “solvent non-profit or low-profit” entities.
Nichols and McChesney write from the pretty-far left, but today even the “neutral” mandarins of mainstream journalism are warning of an advanced crisis in American journalism – and are recommending at least a partial government rescue.
“American journalism is at a transformational moment,” write Leonard Downie, Jr., the former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a Columbia University journalism professor, in a 24-page report in the latest Columbia Journalism Review.
“The economic foundation of the nation’s newspapers, long supported by advertising, is collapsing,” Downie and Schudson say. To keep journalism alive, they recommend a five-step program including Congressional authorization of tax breaks, expanded government funding for public media news reporting, and a national fund for local news.
The strong instinctive objection to government subsidies, of course, is that they would lead to government control of the press. But the advocates of government support for journalism cite countries such as Sweden and Norway, where strong government subsidies and a free press coexist.
Even in the U.S., the public option advocates add, government support in the arts and sciences hasn’t prevented tax-funded agencies in those fields from sometimes harshly criticizing the U.S. government and its policies.
The ace-in-the-hole argument for government subsidies of journalism, though, is that the U.S. government itself – working closely with entrepreneurial publishers – started American journalism in the first place.
Indeed, the U.S. Postal Service was formed in 1792 primarily to deliver newspapers to the furthest corners of the new nation.
The revolutionary leader Benjamin Rush, in 1787, in his “Address to the People of the United States,” articulated this founding vision of the U.S. Post Office:
“For the purpose of diffusing knowledge, as well as extending the living principle of government to every part of the United States, every state, city, county, village and township in the union should be tied together by means of the post-office. It should be a constant injunction to the postmasters, to convey newspapers free of all charge for postage.”
The nation’s founders believed that strong newspaper subsidies, linked to strong protections from government control, was the formula to an enduring free press.
If that formula was good enough for the Founders, why not for us?
Many of the Founders also argued that strong government support of public education should go hand in hand with support of the free press.
Basically, they believed that without literacy, how can journalism work as a binding cultural force?
That’s helpful to recall today as declining news readership habits, increasing multilingualism and other trends make clear that strong efforts to build demand for journalism, as well as shoring up dwindling supply, is needed.
In a famous letter to James Madison, dashed off in Paris in January, 1787, Thomas Jefferson offers a unifying metaphor that remains potent today.
In the letter, Jefferson admits he is not too concerned about a popular uprising against the Massachusetts government, because “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”
The best journalism offers a daily “little rebellion” of truth that can heal our communities, our states and our nation.
The U.S. government should support journalism during this crisis, while building in restraints against government as our constitutional tradition holds.
And if we can’t trust our government to do that, we’ve got bigger questions to discuss than the future of news.