By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A government bailout for journalism? No.

You knew this was coming. Former Providence Journal reporter David Scharfenberg writes in the Boston Globe today that there should be a $100 million government bailout for journalism.

At least he’s not proposing taxpayer money for legacy media organizations such as the Journal or the Globe. Still, his survey of successful independent projects such as Pro Publica and Voice of San Diego suggests that his idea is a solution in search of a problem.

Maybe I’m just being paranoid. But I can’t imagine anything more contrary to the idea of watchdog journalism than funding it with government money.

Tax incentives? Maybe, and I’m going to wrestle with that idea in my column for the Guardian this week. But direct government aid? Never.

If you visit Voice of San Diego, you’ll see this: “an independent nonprofit.” Not if Scharfenberg’s idea catches on.

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12 Comments

  1. journo

    Dan, check out what they’re up to down in Philly, as described in today’s WSJ editorial. Can’t decide which is worse – the owner going hat in hand to the governor, or the governor’s positively giddy response to the idea.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123353263226537457.html

  2. LFNeilson

    A govt. bailout for journalism would not bode well for either party. Or, on second thought, maybe the Town Crier could use a $50 million private jet. Would I have to wait in line for my bonus?zzzzzzz

  3. ron-newman

    Government-subsidized newspapers are not a good idea. But converting their ownership structures to tax-exempt non-profits (wiping out stockholders), that’s an idea I could support.

  4. lkcape

    Dan, tax incentives could end up being as bad an idea as direct aid.An incentive, once given, can be easily taken away. And once the corporate beast has tasted the fruit, he can become a hostage to the whims of the politically powerful.

  5. acf

    Getting the government involved in supporting journalism sounds too risky to me. There will inevitably be a quid pro quo moment which will fly in the face of all the independence journalism should have. They will try to compare this to the writers project of the Roosevelt era, but there is a big difference between writing travel journals about states to put food in the mouths of writers, and this which is really rescuing an industry that is failing in its transition to a new business dynamic. Journalism is not in a ‘will work for food’ moment, but is in something akin to an industrial revolution of the 21st century. Thus far, they are trying to run their 19th century business models in 2009, and it isn’t working out too well. Sexing up their front pages and dumbing down their coverage to try and attract non readers isn’t the answer. I don’t know what is.

  6. NewsHound

    This has always been off limits. Even the Small Business Administration is not allowed to lend money to newspapers.If any government help though, maybe a Piper Cub for the Town Crier. It is practically impossible to determine how this would help journalism in Wilmington, thus a reasonable government expense. A $50 million jet would be pushing it too much for a weekly this size. I suggest asking for a helicopter, but that could actually be useful on occasion, especially for taking nice aerial photographs.

  7. Aaron Read

    Maybe I’m just being paranoid. But I can’t imagine anything more contrary to the idea of watchdog journalism than funding it with government money.Pick your poison, Dan. You’re telling me that “watchdog journalism” is MORE effective when the money comes from multi-billion corporations who answer to Wall Street?I’ve mentioned before that something about gov’t-funded newspapers gives me the heebie-jeebies, too…but it occurs to me it’s no worse than Rupert Murdoch owning newspapers. And somehow NPR stations manage to provide decent watchdog journalism while their budgets are anywhere from 5 to 20% annual government grants.And if Universities are supposed to bastions of independent thought, why doesn’t it bother you that many of them…including Northeastern, I’m sure…depend heavily on annual grants from various government agencies?That’s not meant to be flip…it’s a dead serious question. If we can pin down the reason why gov’t funding for NPR and colleges doesn’t bother us, perhaps we can figure out a structure by which gov’t funding could support newspapers without freaking all the journalists out!I don’t know if this was mentioned here, but it was mentioned on Adam’s MediaLog on Jan.15th: the New England Center for Investigative Reporting – http://www.necir-bu.org which seems to come into existence suspiciously soon after I emailed the idea of BU buying up the Globe to the Dean of BU’s College of Communication. I’ll take my 5% finder’s fee anyday, folks. 🙂 Seriously, though…I suspect you’ll see more concepts like this cropping up in the near future if Universities with journalism curriculums can stabilize their endowments and tuition rolls.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    You’re telling me that “watchdog journalism” is MORE effective when the money comes from multi-billion corporations who answer to Wall Street?Uh, yes, though neither is ideal. Nearly all of the watchdog journalism we get in this country is from media outlets owned by corporations.Also, what makes NPR different is that whether we like the idea or not, the government has had a say in what goes out over the airwaves since the early 1930s. Acting on the theory that the airwaves are a scarce, publicly owned resource, the government regulates broadcast radio and television.Thus government involvement involvement in broadcast isn’t nearly as offensive as it would be in print or online.

  9. Ani

    Dan,I get that the government regulates broadcast radio and television. That’s independent of government funding of a particular outlet. What I don’t understand is how government involvement in its capacity as regulator connects with government involvement, and possible influence over content, as funder. If the two roles are distinct and unconnected, then I think we are back to Aaron Read’s point. I don’t see how just the fact that government is involved in some (other) way with broadcast makes the cases of broadcast and print/online so different with respect to funding. Or maybe I don’t understand the reach of government regulation of broadcast into the content of broadcast. I am missing something here in your argument.

  10. Aaron Read

    Dan, you’re making a guilt-by-association argument, but I’m unconvinced. Government provides the same level of regulation to NPR stations that it provides to regular college stations…and a not-all-that-different level of regulation to commercial radio stations. Yet all three are considered vastly different in terms of the quality of their news coverage. In fact, the one that’s often hailed as the best is the one that receives the most government funding: NPR!Not to change the subject, but is this distinction also becoming increasingly meaningless to successive generations as they grow up in a more and more “mixed media” environment. And, I might add, an environment that does not teach them to make judgments on credibility based on the source of the information. Wikipedia, anyone?

  11. Michael Corcoran

    Dan,I tend to have the same reaction: we can’t have the check on power being funded by that same power structure. But, that said, isn’t that already happening. Private industry is probably more corrupt than the government. It is certainly as important to have journalists covering large corporations, media deregulation and ownership, labor issues etc …Yet, virtually all of these journalists work for companies with very vested interests in these issues. I am not saying government funding is the answer, but is it really much worse than being owned and controlled by publicly-traded companies that are legally bound to put the interests of its shareholders above all, even the public good?

  12. Brooks Lindsay

    We’ve developed a pro/con article on this topic on debatepedia that you might be interested in looking at. http://wiki.idebate.org/index.php/Debate:_Should_governments_subsidize_journalism%3F#External_linksFrom my perspective, the last comment was a particularly good one. Many argue against a bailout on the grounds of media independence, but media should be considered equally bound up by the interests of corporate sponsors. Which is worse?

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