A modest proposal for federal funding of journalism

As the profits and the number of journalists employed in mainstream media continue to shrink, should the federal government step in to help sustain local public-affairs journalism?

In a report released today, former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Columbia University professor Michael Schudson say yes.  It’s one of many suggestions that they make, but it figures to be the most controversial one.  To a lot of journalists, taking money from the government would be an outrageous conflict of interest and an invitation to improper pressure on newsgathering.

Downie and Schudson propose that federal money (from taxes on telecommunications or Internet service providers) be distributed the way National Endowment for the Humanities money is distributed locally:  through state-level councils that review and decide on applications for the funding.  The funding would not be for specific stories, but for broader, longer-range innovations in newsgathering and organizational sustainability. Even so, it’s easy to imagine that that process could become highly politicized.

Unlike some of my colleagues in the journalism profession, I’m open to the idea of some federal funding for journalism, especially at the local and regional level, where the decline of the old business model is doing the most damage. Government funding need not lead to de-fanging the watchdog: look at the quality of the news operation of the BBC. But I think there’s a better way than having councils consider grant applications and dole out funds.

Earlier this year, I teamed up with Jon Sawyer, of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, to write a paper for a Duke University conference, in which we proposed a donor collaborative for nonprofit journalism.  (PDF here.) The idea was simple: Instead of asking everyone interested in supporting this cause to vet every possible recipient, let’s invite donors to collaborate on a fund that will match donations already made to eligible journalism enterprises.  This would ensure that money was being directed to efforts that (a) had demonstrated community support, and (b) were on their way toward sustaining their enterprises through their own fundraising success.

Why not just have government funding of journalism distributed that way – by matching voluntary donations that journalism enterprises are able to gather in their own communities, both from individuals and foundations?  This would funnel the money to enterprises that are demonstrating that they have community support. 

Under such a system, there would be no politics involved in the decision-making. There would be no accusations that the administration is favoring one ideology or using its clout to reward or punish. And the matching funds would make it a lot more attractive for local news organizations to ask their readers or viewers for voluntary support. It costs money to raise money, but if the money you raise will be matched, it becomes a better use of an organization’s limited resources. 

What do you think?  Should the federal government support public-affairs journalism?  Should journalism enterprises be willing to take the money?  If so, how should the dollars be distributed?

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Randy Kirk on 10/19/2009 - 03:38 pm.

    It is only too ironic that we are thinking about funding journalists with federal dollars in the very same week that the administration is kicking Fox to the curb. Political influence wouldn’t effect the funding. HA! This administration thinks that they should be in control of all the news, just like in communist, and Muslim and right wing dictatorships.

    The very thought sends chills through my spine. I only wonder at how the other media in the US can just stand by and watch what Obama and his buddies are trying to do to Fox. First they came for the Jews. Just lay low and follow the Obama line at this paper, the NY and LA Times, Washington Post, CNN et al. After the Jews and the Gypsies, it might just be you.

  2. Submitted by Patrick File on 10/19/2009 - 07:06 pm.

    I agree that placing a level or two of local intervention between the (federal?) government’s money and the news organizations it supports might result in preventing direct influence of coverage, but I disagree that it means “there would be no politics involved in the decision-making.” This ignores the likelihood that foundations or other generous community donors might offer or retract their support with political motives. (As do advertisers in the current/traditional model. The wall between ad and editorial has always been the responsibility of the news organization to maintain. Advertisers would love to see it crumble.)

    Meanwhile, I would caution any proponent of government-funded journalism to cite the BBC as an ideal example. A 2007 self-commissioned study cited a “culture of bias” at the Beeb: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article1942948.ece

  3. Submitted by Ross Williams on 10/19/2009 - 07:25 pm.

    There are three issues here.

    The first issue is what kind of journalism will people pay for? I think the answer is various brands of advocacy journalism that reflect their own point of view. That was our limited experience with our Community Supported Journalism project at Northern Community Internet.

    Moreover, I think that is what most experience fundraisers would expect. Direct mail has always been more effect the more extreme the message. That is because people open their pocketbooks only when they feel very strongly about something. There may be some people who feel strongly that we should have balanced news. But far more money is likely to go to Fox or Huffington Post.

    The second is whether journalism, as currently practiced, is a positive or negative influence on society. It is easy to argue that the “official” narratives developed by mainstream media are actually damaging. Pack journalism has effectively energized angry mobs rather than encouraging deliberative thought. The major public missteps of the last decade, Iraq and the housing bubble, were both fed by misleading media reports that turned out to be inaccurate, but which fit popular opinion.

    That is not new. Consider that the New York Times was told in the summer of 1972, before the election, by the assistant director of the FBI that Nixon was involved in the break in. They failed to follow it up largely because to do so would have been to intervene against popular opinion in the selection of the next President. Only after the election, once the congressional Watergate investigations were already underway, was it safe for the mainstream media to openly consider Nixon’s role. And then only when lead by a well-connected source who wanted the information made public.

    You could say the same thing of the Pentagon Papers. There was nothing new in them that had not been widely reported outside the major US news media. What was new was that they were published in the New York Times once opposition to the war had become acceptable.

    The third issue is whether journalism in its current form is even necessary in the internet age. Journalists have been the conduit for information from news makers to news consumers. It is not clear that conduit is needed any longer. There may be parts of that function which still have value, but which ones? And are they the ones that legacy news organizations, newspapers or others, can provide. I think the answer is probably not.

    What is taking place here is an effort by journalists to save their profession. But the public discussion of the issues is largely controlled and defined by journalists. Not surprisingly, they think their jobs are important and should remain so.

    The current news model is largely corporate media who build a brand and then vet reporter who in turn vet the news that is published under that brand. Whether it is Fox or the Washington Times, they are trusted by their news consumers. And because they are trusted, their reporters are sought after by news makers as effective (and reliable) conduits for their “information”.

    Once you break those corporate brands, individual reporters will be free (or forced) to build their own brand. That is the model we are moving toward. As those reporters (aka bloggers) build credibility with their audience, news makers seek them out as effective conduits.

    How that new model gets paid for is an open question. Perhaps it will still require government support, but it does not require government support for the current editorial or publishing infrastructure. Which is what is really being proposed.

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