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

Death, life and the future of news

Robert McChesney (left) and John Nichols

What role should the government have in preserving public-interest journalism? If you’re a First Amendment absolutist (and I consider myself to be pretty close), you might immediately respond with a resounding “none.” Yet such purity has never been the reality in American life.

Heavy postal subsidies from the earliest days of the republic helped create the most vibrant newspaper and magazine industry in the world. To bring matters up to the present, media corporations are now given virtually free use of the broadcast airwaves, theoretically owned by all of us, with little expectation that they will fulfill the public-interest obligations that were once required of them.

Earlier today, John Nichols and Robert McChesney visited Northeastern to promote their new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.” (You can read excerpts of it here and here.) I won’t pretend to write an objective account — I introduced them, and we all said nice things about each other. Rather, I want to discuss briefly their idea that at a time when journalism is in crisis, government ought to step in and prop it up to the tune of some $30 billion a year — a number they say correlates, in 2010 dollars, with what was spent on postal subsidies in the 1840s.

To their credit, they do not propose taking taxpayer funds and handing them to Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger. Instead, they would like to see a variety of initiatives that, properly implemented, would bolster journalism without raising the specter of government interference: greatly expanded support for public broadcasting with an arm’s-length funding mechanism; an AmeriCorps for young journalists; even a $200 tax credit for every family to spend on the news media of their choice.

And they are correct in asserting that other Western democracies, particularly the Scandinavian countries, subsidize their media to a far greater extent than we do without suffering any loss of freedom.

Yet I still worry that theirs is the wrong solution. Consider, for example, that non-profit organizations, including news operations, are forbidden from endorsing political candidates — a ban on free speech that dates back to 1954, when then-Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson acted to silence the opposition back home in Texas. That underscores what I think is the real problem with government assistance: once you start relying on it, you are forever subject to the vagaries of the political moment.

Afterward I asked McChesney about an idea recently proposed by Dan Gillmor, best known as the author of “We the Media,” to emulate the original idea of postal subsidies by using government funds to pay for universal broadband access. As Gillmor sees it, that, combined with a guarantee of net neutrality, should be enough to allow market forces to do the rest.

“I think we need that no matter what,” McChesney replied. But he added there was “not a shred of evidence” that universal broadband access and net neutrality would be sufficient to guarantee a vibrant press.

Nichols and McChesney’s presentation combined gloom-and-doom with optimism for the future of journalism, if only the public can be mobilized. Like Clay Shirky, they think we have entered a post-advertising era in which it will prove impossible sustain journalism as a commercial enterprise. But whereas Shirky has called for a variety of commercial, non-profit and volunteer-driven experiments, Nichols and McChesney believe the public ought to pay more directly for what it needs to govern itself.

“We are at a 1776 moment,” Nichols said “It is your democracy that is threatened.”

Nichols and McChesney are co-founders of Free Press, an organization that is fighting the good fight on behalf of local ownership of radio and television stations and government guarantees for net neutrality. My reservations aside, Nichols and McChesney are making an important contribution to the discussion over paying for news, and I look forward to reading their book.

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  1. I don’t know enough about their book to really comment, but based on your observations, Dan, I also have some problems with direct government subsidies of the press. There are inherent problems with the model – as you noted.

    I think there is room for university or foundation like models in which the media run independently, but fund themselves through donations (much like NPR) and can build up an endowment. Although there are challenges there as well.

    Don’t know if I agree we’re in a post advertising age. We are certainly in an age where “traditional” advertising is ineffective, but there are creative ways to sell new types of advertising – some we probably haven’t thought of yet.

    I also think that we could be in a transitional period of a “free” internet. One that simply can’t last. Content cost money and we have to come to terms with that. I argue – rather fuzzily – that point here:

    But certainly a book worth picking up! Thanks.

  2. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I, too, don’t know anough about the book but it seems they are equating ‘news’ and ‘newspapers’. I DO like the idea of the $200 credit, though, and think it is a practical ‘arms-length’ subisidy rather than more public broadcasting funding. However, public ACCESS funding is different and under siege as cable carriers balk at paying for acccess studios. Perhaps that would be a better target to ensure access.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @PP: Nichols and McChesney favor funding all kinds of non-profit, public media, including public access.

  3. Mike Stucka

    Dan’s first “excerpt” link points to something in The Nation, which is plenty of time to get their argument in full.

    I’ve got a pile of concerns over the collection, subsidizing and distribution over public money for media. At the same time, I’m seeing some great foundation-funded projects like ProPublica, but I don’t see foundations with the wherewithal to fund community journalism. It’s very interesting to read about euthanasia in post-Katrina hospitals, but that doesn’t tell me about why the local school superintendent may get forced out — with a a story informed by hundreds of pages of documents.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Check out the community foundations funding the New Haven Independent — scroll down the right-hand column. It is true that there is more foundation money out there for big, sexy, national projects. But in New Haven, at least, the foundation community understands that good-quality local journalism is essential.

  4. Steve Stein

    A little off-topic, but here’s what Dan Gillmor would do if he ran a journalism school. (h/t Cory Doctorow @ Boing Boing)

    Some excerpts:
    # Emphasize undergraduate journalism degrees as great liberal arts programs, even more valuable that way than as training for journalism careers.

    # Encourage, and require in some cases, cross-disciplinary learning and doing. We’d create partnerships around the university, working with business, engineering/computer science, film, political science, law, design and many other programs. The goals would be both to develop our own projects and to be an essential community-wide resource for the future of local media.

    # Teach students not just the basics of digital media but also the value of data and programming to their future work.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: What Dan Gillmor writes about is exactly what we are trying to do at Northeastern. Many other journalism schools are wrestling with those issues as well. It’s hard for change to come as quickly as it should, but the direction is as he lays out.

  5. Mike Stucka

    Dan: Interesting — I didn’t realize New Haven’s demographics were that poor, which makes the newspaper more interesting.

    As far as Northeastern goes, are the journalism and geography departments on talking terms yet? That’s such a great potential partnership, and the physical proximity wouldn’t hurt. I can provide the two stories I did there with GIS software if it’d help anyone get an interest.

  6. The video of McChesney and Nichols’s talk is now available online:
    Great piece Dan, and thanks also for your introduction!

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