Roving thoughts and provocations

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A Public Bailout for News?

Félix Vallotton: The Age of Paper, 1898

It was with much curiosity that I opened The Reconstruction of American Journalism, the latest entrant in the great race to save the news in America. Commissioned by Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the report was written by Leonard Downie Jr., the highly respected former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a leading historian of American journalism who is also at the Columbia J-School. The two spent months crisscrossing the country and interviewing scores of editors, reporters, bloggers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and citizens. In the end, the 21,000 words they produced can be boiled down to this: Columbia, the leading journalism school in the country, has placed its imprimatur on the idea of government funding of the news. What sort of impact might that have?

Informative and crisply-written, The Reconstruction of American Journalism is mercifully free of the grandiloquence and throat-clearing typical of such studies. As Downie and Schudson see it, what needs reconstructing is not advocacy journalism, which they found to be thriving, but “accountability journalism”—independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and coverage of the community.

The authors offer a survey of the changing ways in which news is being gathered and published. At great length they describe the florescence of local Web sites like Voice of San Diego and MinnPost, the rise of online investigative units like ProPublica and the Watchdog Institute, the proliferation of university-based journalism programs (Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Arizona State University’s Cronkite News Service), and the ballooning of the blogosphere (Talking Points Memo, Tehran Bureau).

To many informed citizens, including readers of my two recent articles in The New York Review (“The News About the Internet” and “A New Horizon for the News”), much of this will seem familiar. Disappointingly, the report makes no effort to distinguish between those start-ups that seem promising and those that do not. Nor does it take a position on the pressing—and increasingly contentious—matter of whether newspapers should charge for access to their Web sites. “We believe the marketplace will determine whether any of the many experiments will ultimately be successful,” Downie and Schudson write, not very helpfully.

Their concerns are more Olympian. With the erosion of the long-time economic base of quality journalism, they state,

American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment—as society has, at much greater expense, for public needs like education, health care, scientific advancement, and cultural preservation—through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy, and government policy.

Of the six proposals Downie and Schudson advance for fulfilling that responsibility, five seem as worthy as they are unobjectionable. The IRS or Congress should authorize news organizations that derive much of their income from advertising or circulation to operate as nonprofits. Philanthropists and foundations of which there are more than 700 nationwide should increase their support for quality news gathering. Universities should not just teach journalism but set up their own news services. Public radio and television should provide more local news, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting should sharply increase its support for such reporting. Public information collected by the government should be made more accessible.

It’s their remaining recommendation that has attracted the most attention. Downie and Schudson call for the creation of a national Fund for Local News supported by a portion of more than $7 billion that the FCC takes in every year from a surcharge on telephone bills. This fund would make grants to state Local News Fund Councils, which in turn would dole them out to news organizations “that propose worthy initiatives in local news reporting.” Modeled on the state humanities councils that have been operating since the 1970s, these councils would include journalists, educators, and community leaders. A national review board would monitor the grants made by these state councils to ensure the quality of the news produced.

Despite such efforts to insure political neutrality and independence, this idea has provoked opposition from First Amendment purists like James Poniewozik at Time who fear that any government support for news organizations would inevitably compromise them. That worry seems exaggerated. For decades, newspapers have had to contend with pressures from car dealers, department stores, corporations, and many others who advertise in them. A case can be made that pressure from the government would actually be less dangerous, for any attempt by officials to control the news would itself make news. Remember the furor kicked up by the Bush administration’s heavy-handed attempts to combat the “liberal bias” at PBS?

The practical obstacles seem more formidable. Creating fifty state local news funds plus a national review board to monitor them seems a highly cumbersome undertaking, especially given the pace of change and innovation on the Internet. Political realities pose another concern. Is the America of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, George Will, tea parties, and the NRA ready to support a government bailout of the news business? Maybe not, but who a year ago could have imagined Washington spending tens of billions of dollars to save Detroit?

In fact, The Reconstruction of American Journalism might itself affect the political climate. On October 28—just eight days after the report’s release—FCC chairman Jules Genachowski announced that he had asked Steven Waldman, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the interfaith Web site Beliefnet, to lead a study “to assess the state of media in these challenging times and make recommendations designed to ensure a vibrant media landscape.”

Genachowski specifically mentioned the Columbia report, as well as recent studies by the Knight Commission and the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. Thanks in part to the Columbia report, the idea of government funding of the news business has moved one step closer to reality.

Even as the FCC study proceeds, of course, the newspaper business will continue to shed jobs. Government funding could provide some balm over the long term, but what about the short? There’s another potential money pot out there that The Reconstruction of American Journalism doesn’t mention—one that could offer an important lifeline during this painful transition. I’ll discuss it in a subsequent post.

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