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Jan. 4 2010 - 2:59 pm | 126 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

FOLIO: Editorial: The Role of Government in Journalism

The following post appeared as a guest editorial in the January 2010 issue of FOLIO: magazine.

Kicking off Day Two of the Federal Trade Commission’s recent hearings on the dismal economics of journalism last month, Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, declared that government would have to step in, “one way or the other,” to help the publishing industry survive a “market failure” that threatens independent journalism. He wasn’t specific about the nature of such aid, conceding “Congress can’t impose a solution.” But he left no doubt that he believes it’s the government’s role to spring to journalism’s defense.

This pledge appealed to some participants, like those representing public-media entities including PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Congress should adopt legislation that would provide substantial additional resources to public-service journalism,” said Mark MacCarthy, professor of communications at Georgetown University, arguing that government involvement in the arts, sciences and other fields is “traditional, mainstream and all-American.” “This is not some weird, strange aberration and alien intrusion into our life,” MacCarthy said. “This is the way we do things in this country.”

Words of Warning

For any publishers tempted by such a government rescue, I would invoke six words of warning: Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Tomlinson, Enola Gay.

These names are loaded for a reason. Mapplethorpe was a notable art photographer before he became a cause célèbre, one of several artists whose work caught the attention of conservative groups when exhibitions were funded by the National Endowment of the Arts. In the 1990s, the NEA received between $160 and $180 million to underwrite arts in the U.S., but under pressure its funding was halved in 1996 and has yet to recover. The NEA stopped funding individual artists’ work.

Ken Tomlinson was named chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by president George W. Bush in 2003 and immediately began hunting for “liberal bias” in public television, funding an investigation of Bill Moyers, and violating both CPB regulations and federal law by raising money to underwrite a program run by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.

The Smithsonian’s abortive effort to mount an exhibit around the WWII bomber plane Enola Gay was attacked by the Pentagon, veterans groups and members of Congress. This ended the tenure of the secretary and the curator of the Air and Space Museum, leaving the institution’s credibility in tatters. The new secretary was forced to cancel the exhibit to keep funding intact. It’s unclear what was foregone later to avoid political fallout.

All support comes with strings attached, of course. Corporate ownership of publishing can be chilling, and even philanthropists have friends in high places. By comparison with government support, though, such pressures are benign. Even the effects of advertising on journalism are mild in contrast, since the sources of revenue are multilateral.

Dual Revenue Stream Model Not Broken

Turns out, the dual-revenue stream model for newspapers and magazines is about as ideal as a business model can be, at least for independent journalism.

And that model still works. It has a bright future in the world of digital broadband to which magazines—at long last—are migrating. As the new generation of tablets and their descendents change the Internet from a “lean-forward,” desktop information utility to a “lean-back” immersion experience, all the video and rich media advertising that has been on the sidelines for lack of a proper home will find its way to those places where consumers will pay to be—and the best kind of public support, the kind that independent journalism can really rely on, is circulation revenue.

Will people pay for journalism? Of course they will. It is hard to imagine why this question persists. When have people failed to pay for what they want and need?

Government has a role here, but it’s about the distribution channel, not the content. Broadband penetration brings the digital divide issue into sharp relief. Where government funding is needed—indeed, critical—is to ensure universal high-speed access to the Internet and the broad availability, especially of broadband learning devices in schools. Until government can be trusted to take over the role of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable—and the health-care debate hardly suggests that moment has come—journalism should continue to make its own way.


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  1. collapse expand

    Jim,

    I agree with you about the government’s important role in the future of distribution – especially as it related to efforts to achieve universal broadband and promote Net Neutrality to protect free speech and create a level playing field online. This is in many ways similar to the postal subsidies the founding fathers put in place to ensure that at our countries founding, we not only had a free press but an accessible press as well.

    I am as eager as the next news-geek for the Apple tablet and whatever other new platforms will emerge, but I don’t share your faith that new gadgets are going to equate to more reporters, more news and analysis for communities, or more access to that information to a broad swath of the public. While I also think that new forms of revenues will emerge from new platforms (as has been shown by the iPhone) I haven’t seen anything to suggest that those revenues will be adequate to support the kind of news and information needs of communities outlined in reports like the Knight Foundations study.

    In addition, while you present troubling examples of government meddling in content, Research by Rod Benson, amongst others, suggests that if you look at long term trends — not individual examples — government supported media in France actually offer more diverse viewpoints and more critical coverage of government than the New York Times. In addition, government involvement in media doesn’t necessarily equate to direct grants/funding/subsidies. There are a range of regulatory and legal issues that shape our media system and impact the future of journalism. We need to look at the big picture to best assess how government can and should be involved in the future of news.

    *Full disclosure – I run http://www.SaveTheNews.org which is exploring and debating public policies for the future of journalism.

  2. collapse expand

    Josh, what ARE said range of regulatory and legal issues that shape our media system?

    FreePress seems intent on contributing the ‘bad policy helped break it, smart policy must fix it’ argument to the narrative of the decline and the debate about the future of journalism. But I’ve been having a hard time finding

    As for solutions, so far most of the ones savethenews.org has proposed seem pretty hands off – promote non-profits and low-profits, stimulate their growth through tax incentives, provide grants for innovation and experimentation (the knight news challenge x the federal government), ensure job training for journalists (presumably through grants), and reform and expand existing public media. There’s no talk of direct public funding for private or non-profit news organizations.

    In my experience, journalists are the first to knee-jerk against the idea of full-blooded public funding. This is understandable, since journalists (rightly) view their credibility as resting on their independence, neutrality, and ability to hold the powerful accountable.

    But this response could make the politics of public media funding totally intractable. (Which they probably already are – think of how this would be framed by the tea partiers and the cable news stations.) Apart from this initial hurdle, even is public financing legislation somehow cleared Congress, the country is so polarized and leery of government spending that Graines’ examples ring true.

    Does anyone know if and how public financing is structured in Britain (the BBC), France, and the Nordic countries in to insulate media organizations from political influence and pressure?

    Or about the political debate – and journalists’ attitudes – about the issue in these countries?

    • collapse expand

      Juan,
      I’ll respond to your second point first. I agree that some journalists are the first to shout down the notion of govt. subsidies in journalism. However we are hearing from more and more journalists that this is changing as more non-profit journalism ventures emerge. Regardless, my fear is that people’s knee jerk reactions about federal funding of journalists will cause them to throw the baby out with the bath water. Policy has always shaped our media system, we need to look at the full range of policies that impact journalism and explore new ones, some of which might be new federal funding streams others may be more hands off.

      This gets to your first question regarding what regulatory and legal issues are shaping journalism. Obviously as Jim points out in this article, the future of internet policy will have a huge bearing on journalism. Policies that have allowed vast media consolidation have also had a profound impact. Issues like low-power FM community radio and Public, Educational, and Community Access TV will shape the development of new local outlets. Then at a more micro level issues like the Shield Law and outdated rules barring non-profit journalists from press galleries at statehouses all impact new journalism efforts. All of this is in addition to the points you already referred to that we are working on at SaveTheNews.org.

      In terms of your questions about international models we are doing a lot of research on that, some of which you can find at http://www.NewPublicMedia.org and I also recommend this comment thread on another blog post addressing this issue: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2009/10/30/five-reasons-government-shouldnt-subsidize-journalism/#comment-3210

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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