Journalism: A Classic ‘Public Good’

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Last year practically burst at the seams with reports, conferences and other high-profile gatherings on the future of journalism. So what comes next? As one blog post summarized in December, “If 2009 was a year of study and debate about the future of journalism, 2010 must be a year of action.”

Those looking for a roadmap this year should turn to the latest analysis from Bob McChesney and John Nichols, whose new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, kicks off the new decade with some sage advice: You want to save journalism? Take a history lesson, stop fear-mongering about government involvement in journalism, and get organized.

This week, McChesney and Nichols, co-founders of Free Press, present their research in the latest edition of The Nation. And they make it clear that we’ve got our work cut out for us:

Unfortunately misconceptions about the crisis and the proper relationship between government and media warp the debate. Addressing these misconceptions, and getting beyond them, will be the great challenge of 2010.

Those working to smash the funhouse mirror that this debate has resembled might start by thinking about what journalism is actually all about. Journalism, McChesney and Nichols write, is a “classic ‘public good’ – something society needs and people want but market forces are now incapable of generating in sufficient quality or quantity.” It should be viewed through the same lens as, say, education, health care and transportation infrastructure, as essential to democracy itself.

Though the Internet may offer the illusion that we are already living in the land of plenty, where information is as abundant as sand in a desert, the reality is that information overload is not a surefire path to enlightenment and engagement. Moreover, much of that information is coming from the same old sources. McChesney and Nichols point to Matthew Hindman’s latest book, which debunks the myth that the Internet is the new Wild West. “Internet traffic,” they write, “mostly gravitates to sites that aggregate and reproduce existing journalism, and the web is dominated by a handful of players, not unlike old media. Indeed, they are largely the same players.”

The previous decade closed with the newspaper industry shedding reporters en masse while detractors cried out that any government subsidies would undoubtedly lead to the end of democracy as we know it. But here’s where the history lesson really kicks in: Government support of journalism is nothing new. Postal and printing subsidies supported independent publishers throughout the early nineteenth century. In fact, McChesney and Nichols suggest that press subsidies were the second greatest expense in the federal budgets of the early Republic. Indeed, if we were to allocate a comparable percentage of our national resources, it would amount to about $30 billion per year. Instead, in 2009 the U.S. government allocated a mere $400 million for the whole public broadcasting system.

If we want to stop the bleeding and actually begin nourishing our broken media system, we are going to need some immediate injections – starting with a lot more cash combined with a heaping dose of competition. But McChesney and Nichols aren’t suggesting we write a blank check to the same old play-it-safe players.

For starters, spending on public and community broadcasting should increase dramatically, with the money going primarily to journalism, especially on the local level. We never thought one commercial newsroom was satisfactory for an entire community; why should we regard it as acceptable to have a single noncommercial newsroom serve an entire community? Let's also have AmeriCorps put thousands of young people to work, perhaps as journalists on start-up digital "publications" covering underserved communities nationwide. This would quickly put unemployed journalists to work.

More money for public media and local journalism, increased competition and new jobs? Sounds like a good road to start down for 2010.