Saving the news
By Reginald Johnson
June 23, 2010
Everywhere you turn, journalism seems to be dying.
Battered by a number of factors, including the recession and years of bad management, newspapers are going out of business. Once proud papers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News, for instance, have shut their doors. The L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune have filed for bankruptcy. Others like the Boston Globe are teetering on the edge.
The papers that are still afloat are reducing staffs and cutting newsprint costs in a desperate bid to stay alive. In the process, there’s less stories being produced for readers about government, business and culture.
At the same time, the electronic media isn’t exactly jumping into the breach and offering a solid news alternative. TV and radio stations have slashed their news staffs in recent years, too, and offer almost nothing in the way of substantive reporting.
The Internet also doesn’t provide much fresh news from the many websites that have cropped up; most news on the Web comes originally from the newspapers that are still around.
So if newspapers go the way of the horse and buggy, who’s going to cover what's going on in your local and state governments? Who’s going to keep track of corporations and nonprofit organizations?
There’s no question that having an informed citizenry is absolutely critical to maintaining a healthy democracy. Without an informed populace, our system will collapse.
There’s a growing number of people out there who are trying to figure out how we save the news business or somehow create alternative vehicles for journalism.
Robert McChesney, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois and John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, have spent a number of years studying this issue, and recently came out with a pathbreaking book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism --- The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.”
In it, McChesney and Nichols argue that the traditional model that has supported and allowed newspapers to thrive for decades no longer works. That model was based on papers devoting a large portion of their pages to commercial advertising, and in so doing bringing in solid revenue. That money in turn allowed publishers to set aside another healthy portion of the paper to news stories, which brought in circulation revenues, as well as provided a public service.
But in recent years, advertising and classified has been drifting to the Internet. Circulation has been lost in large part because big corporations --- which swallowed up papers in the 1980s and 1990s --- decided to cut costs to keep profits high and in so doing weakened their product and lost readers, particularly young readers.
McChesney and Nichols believe that there’s no way to revive the old commercial model for journalism (despite some of the brave predictions about a comeback by some newspaper owners). Instead, to really save journalism and make it grow, they say, the public sector has to step in and play a major, supporting role.
The authors maintain that journalism must be seen as a “public good” --- just like education and the military are seen as the public good. And they add that if Americans want good journalism to make our constitutional system work, “it means we need a massive public intervention to produce a public good.”
To keep good papers and magazines alive and spur the growth of new, independent and non-commercial on-line publications and programs, billions will have to be spent in public subsidies, they say.
Among the ideas McChesney and Nichols put forth are these:
· A tax credit for newspapers worth 50 percent of all the salaries paid to all journalistic employees, up to a maximum of $45,000. “This credit would result in papers hiring (and not firing) many more journalists.”
· Cut postal rates for magazines that have less than 25 percent of their space devoted to ads, to 5 cents. Many magazines, on both the left and the right, are floundering. A postal cut would help them stay alive, and cost the government $200 million a year, the authors write.
· Establish a “Journalism Division” in the AmeriCorps program, which already sees the government place people in community service programs. Young people would be paid to go work at a community radio station or other media, and go out and report on the community. “It strikes us as a win-win; we get more journalists covering our communities, and young journalists have a chance to gain valuable experience…” they write.
· While McChensey and Nichols see no commercial future for major dailies, they say it’s in the public interest to make sure at least one newspaper remain alive in every community that has traditionally had one. “To this end, the federal government must intervene to aid the transition to post-corporate ownership models for daily papers.” A federal office set up to oversee the transition of failing papers could buy the papers for a time, and then resell them to new owners, or provide low-interest loans to new ownership groups to make the deals themselves.
· Revitalize our pubic broadcasting systems, which have been woefully underfunded for years. Canada, Britain and other countries spend a lot more than the U.S. and have excellent news programs on their public systems. Right now, the U.S. spends only $409 million on PBS and NPR. If we spent as much per capita as Canada, the federal commitment would be $7.5 billion.
If all these proposals and others they mention were implemented, Nichols and McChesney write, the total tab would run around $35 billion.
The authors concede that “that’s darned near inconceivable in a nation that has battled over whether to spend a paltry $400 million on public broadcasting.”
But they also note that that $35 billion is close to what much smaller nations like Denmark and Finland spend per capita on public media.
They also point out quite aptly that the amount is just 3.5 percent of the $1 trillion America is spending on the military this year.
To many journalists (such as myself), the idea of public subsidies sends off alarm bells. Won’t there be government censorship?
McChesney and Nichols recognize this concern, and say emphatically, “Let’s be clear about this: the bedrock principle that government must not censor or interfere with the content or journalistic operations of news media is non-negotiable.”
They point out that while the First Amendment prohibits state censorship, it also does not prohibit or discourage the public from using the government to subsidize and spawn independent media.
In fact, the early press in this country, small newspapers and journals, got started in large part through postal and printing subsidies.
“It is not too much to say that without those huge subsidies, our nation would not have evolved as it did, indeed it might not have evolved at all,” they write.
(John Nichols spoke about his book recently at a pubic forum in New Haven. Audio CDs and DVDs of this event will be available in coming weeks at www.btlonline.org)