• Email
  • Print

What Future for the News?—An Exchange

In response to:

A New Horizon for the News from the September 24, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

Michael Massing is apt in spotting the collapse of America’s $50 billion commercial news industry as a rare opportunity for our public media to become the core of a national noncommercial news system [“A New Horizon for News,” NYR, September 24]. But his suggestion that NPR and PBS can be “akin to the BBC” in any meaningful way while still relying on their current funding methods is simply out of scale with reality.

American public media will never be even remotely as effective as the BBC in gathering and reporting news or providing public scrutiny of industry and government unless NPR and PBS are funded far beyond their current levels. It is true, as Massing says, that NPR is thriving, but only by an impoverished standard. The BBC serves a nation one fifth as big as the US and received the equivalent of $5.6 billion in direct funding from the UK central government in 2007. In contrast, American public media in 2007 received about $450 million in federal government funding, and about the same amount in voluntary donations. Since the economic collapse, donations have gone down so sharply that the House of Representatives recently proposed $40 million in “emergency stabilization” money to help make up for the decline.

To hope, as Massing does, that PBS can expand its operations at a time when a huge increase in member donations would be needed just to get back to former levels is to hope too much. As former president of the country’s largest PBS station, and as somebody who stood in front of TV cameras for over twenty years asking viewers for money, I have both a sense of deep gratitude for those viewers whose donations helped keep the system alive, but also an awareness of how increasingly ineffective such a funding system is.

Of the roughly 65 million Americans who consume public media, only about 10 percent actually donate money to support them. And the costs of pledge drives, direct mail campaigns, and other necessary fund-raising efforts sharply decrease the value of each dollar donated. In recent years, public television has had to shake the proverbial cup harder and harder just to come up with a steady level of support. While its audience has stayed the same, the number of donors to public television has dropped by 1.2 million people in the last decade, and the economic collapse will likely make things worse. If Massing hopes that an expanded PBS will be a part of a noncommercial news system, one wonders where he thinks the money will come from.

Despite his enthusiastic tour of non-profit news organizations, Massing himself admits that the billions needed from big foundations for bold moves like endowing a major American newspaper just “aren’t out there.” What he does not say as clearly is that the critical mass of smaller nonprofits needed to replace any significant part of our imploding commercial news sector isn’t out there either. Again, it is a matter of scale. ProPublica, which Massing identifies as the “standard-bearer” for private non-commercial news, has an annual budget of $10 million, which is less than just a single mid-sized newspaper, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, was losing the year before it went out of business.

I say this not to deride the pioneering efforts of private noncommercial media groups, but to demonstrate that we need to be both bolder and more realistic in our solution to the news crisis. If we really want a thriving noncommercial news system in America that is big enough to matter, we have to acknowledge that direct government funding is the only way to get it.

William F. Baker
President Emeritus, WNET
Bernard L. Schwartz Professor and Journalist-in-Residence
Fordham University
New York City

To the Editors:

As a cofounder, in one case, and the editor, in the other, of a blog devoted to Chinese politics and culture (The China Beat), we read Michael Massing’s recent piece, “The News About the Internet” [ NYR, August 13], with great attention. But we were disheartened that in the second substantive look at blogging in these pages—the first being Sarah Boxer’s “Blogs” [ NYR, February 14, 2008]—there was again no mention of China.

This is too bad, as China is not just a country that now has more people who go online than there are citizens of the United States, but also one where blogs play unusually important and varied roles in public life, including helping to spread word of and gain signatures for daring documents of dissent, such as the “Charter 08” proclamation that appeared in these pages, translated from the Chinese by Perry Link, earlier this year [NYR, January 15].

Using the blogosphere, Chinese citizens have begun to wield enormous power through online organizing, acting as watchdogs against government corruption, pollution, and unjust social policies. These activists do so in a political context where, by the letter of the law, they may have a right to check government or corporate misbehavior; but prior to widespread Internet access, limits on speech would have prevented them from doing so.

Many prominent Chinese intellectuals have been turning to blogs and related online formats to disseminate their views. Two notable examples should be familiar to readers of the Review: the now imprisoned “Charter 08” drafter Liu Xiaobo, whose 2006 essay “The Internet Is God’s Present to China” was recently republished by The Times of London in its online edition (April 28, 2009); and the Tibetan poet and activist Woeser.*

While only those with Chinese-language skills can immerse themselves fully in China’s blogsophere, blogs like ours spread news about Chinese events and debates to an active global readership. As Timothy Garton Ash recently put it in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed (April 16, 2009): “A couple of hours on the Web, armed with a few tips, will lead you to an Aladdin’s cave of rich, diverse, detailed reporting and analysis of China,” including sites, such as New Yorker writer Evan Osnos’s “Letter from China,” that provide detailed discussions and sometimes extended translations of posts by Chinese bloggers. Garton Ash suggests that those interested in entering this world “try chinadigitaltimes.net and danwei.org as a first ‘open sesame,’” and we agree.

Kate Merkel-Hess
Mellon/ACLS Post-Doctoral Fellow in
History and Editor of The China Beat
University of California–Irvine
Irvine, California

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Professor of History and Editor of The Journal of Asian Studies
University of California–Irvine
Irvine, California

Michael Massing replies:

I welcome William Baker’s remarks about the need for more government funding of noncommercial news. I wrote my article about the future of news-gathering under the assumption that, in the current political climate, such funding would not likely materialize, but Baker’s letter, together with some recent conversations I’ve had on the subject, has convinced me that it is indeed doubtful that the type of vital public news network so many of us crave could become a reality without a major boost in government backing. How to make that happen is, needless to say, the great challenge.

As for nonprofit news organizations, I’m somewhat more hopeful than Baker is about the possibility of finding new funding sources. If the new Investigative News Network I described in my article gets off the ground, it could serve as a clearinghouse for raising and distributing foundation funding. And if such flush Internet-based companies as Google, eBay, and Craigslist could be persuaded (or shamed) into channeling even a tiny portion of their profits into nonprofit news as a means of subsidizing an invaluable public service (the gathering of news) that their enterprises have done so much to undercut, a vast new source of revenue could become available to this sector. Yes, it’s a long shot, but no more so than the hope that the US government will suddenly shower billions of dollars on noncommercial news organizations.

As for Merkel-Hess and Wasserstrom’s complaint that I should have paid more attention to China in my article about Internet journalism, I found it challenging enough to get a grip on the state of the Internet in this country, let alone that of the world’s most populous nation (especially since I don’t speak Chinese). Others could gripe that I didn’t write about Iran, Egypt, or Cuba, all of which have thriving blogging communities. (For a report on the remarkable flowering of journalistic blogging in Cuba, see the recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists at cpj .org/reports/2009/09/cuban-bloggers-offer-fresh-hope.php.)

It’s certainly encouraging to see how, from Havana to Beijing, the Web and blogs are helping to open up societies that have so long chafed under the strict information controls imposed by their governments.

  1. *

    For more on Liu see Zhang Zuhua, “China’s Repression of Liu Xiaobo,” The New York Review, August 13, 2009; on Woeser, see Pankaj Mishra, “The Quiet Heroes of Tibet,” The New York Review, January 17, 2008.

  • Email
  • Print