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

Why a direct government subsidy for local news in Cambridge is a bad idea

Cambridge City Hall. Photo (cc) 2010 by andrew_cosand

Government assistance for journalism exists along a continuum. Media scholars such as Paul Starr and Victor Pickard have observed that the American press got an enormous boost starting in Colonial times by way of generous postal subsidies — a benefit that lasted until several decades ago, when market fundamentalists began demanding that the Postal Service cover its expenses. Public notices — advertisements that government agencies and corporations are legally obliged to take out in order to publicize certain types of meetings, contracts, bids and the like — are another form of subsidy.

As the local news crisis has deepened, other ideas have been put forward. As Ellen Clegg and I write in our book, “What Works in Community News,” an independent board in New Jersey, the Civic Information Consortium, has awarded some $5.5 million to fund reporting and information projects over the past few years. In California, a $25 million appropriation is paying the salaries of recent master’s degree journalism graduates at UC Berkeley to cover underserved communities over a three-year period. Legislators in New York and Illinois are moving toward approving tax credits for local news publishers to hire and retain journalists after similar efforts at the federal level have stalled.

The challenge is to keep government assistance as indirect as possible so that journalism can maintain its vital role as an independent monitor of power. Which is why an idea that’s being discussed in Cambridge goes too far.

Boston Globe reporter Spencer Buell writes that the City Council is considering a proposal to set aside $100,000 a year in public money to support local news over the next three years. If enacted, the money, to be administered by an independent board, could be awarded to Cambridge Day, a longtime and well-regarded local newspaper, as well as other outlets. Among the proponents: Cambridge News Matters, a nonprofit that has been working with Cambridge Day and could partner with others as well. (Disclosure: I’ve offered some advice and counsel to Cambridge News Matters when I’ve been asked, and I told them just recently that I thought this was a dubious idea.)

Mary McGrath of Cambridge News Matters told Buell: “We heard loud and clear that quality local journalism is critical to democracy, that you can’t have a cohesive community without an informed citizenry. The business model to deliver this kind of journalism is broken.” Buell also interviewed me. Here’s what I told him:

We want local news organizations to be able to cover government and other institutions and keep an eye on them — not always in an adversarial way, but always in an independent way. If you’re going to have a direct transfer of money from local government to local news organizations, you’ve lost that. So I just don’t think this is a good idea.

Philosophical objections aside, what’s being discussed is pretty short money to put journalistic independence at risk. As Buell notes, Cambridge News Matters hopes to raise several million dollars in private donations over the next few years. The Boston area is home to many local news startups that were launched in response to the giant newspaper chain Gannett’s abandonment of its weekly newspapers, including the Cambridge Chronicle. None of them, whether nonprofit or for-profit, has had to rely on direct government funding.

I’m a longtime admirer of Cambridge Day and its editor, Marc Levy, as well of McGrath and the folks at the nonprofit. I would love to see more local news coverage in Cambridge than Marc is currently able to provide, and I have no doubt that everyone involved in this would make strenuous efforts not to be influenced by any government funding they might receive. But I just don’t see how this is the way to go.

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1 Comment

  1. google gal

    Better to give a hand to a drowning man that watch him perish…

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