Friday, January 8, 2010

The Case For Journalism Subisidies

"How to Save Journalism," a new article by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, founders of Free Press, makes perhaps the best case I've seen for creating new government subsidies for journalism. Their argument, published in The Nation, essentially is that the federal government has been doling out subsidies in one form or another -- postal discounts, for example -- since the days of the Founding Fathers. They also do some math to show that those subsidies were relatively large back then. Here's an excerpt:

The need for them was rarely questioned, which is perhaps one reason they have been so easily overlooked. They were developed with the intention of expanding the quantity, quality and range of journalism--and they were astronomical by today's standards. If, for example, the United States had devoted the same percentage of its GDP to journalism subsidies in 2009 as it did in the 1840s, we calculate that the allocation would have been $30 billion. In contrast, the federal subsidy last year for all of public broadcasting, not just journalism, was around $400 million.
Nichols and McChesney also make the case that additional subsidies would not lead to government control or censorship of journalism. But how would they dole out that money? That's where their case gets too vague for my comfort. The most specific ideas they offer are that "spending on public and community broadcasting should increase dramatically" and that "also have AmeriCorps put thousands of young people to work, perhaps as journalists on start-up digital "publications" covering underserved communities nationwide."

I've tried to stay open to the idea of more government spending to help support journalism, especially during the epochal transition now underway in our media. But this still doesn't cut it for me. I spent enough time covering Capitol Hill to know that the budgeting and appropriation process for public media are anything but transparent, and I have yet to see a workable proposal to divorce funding from politics.

Nichols and McChesney do give a nod to the potential of the nonprofit sector. But while offering a well-researched historical perspective on government subsidies, they neglect to provide the same context for the capacity of the nonprofit sector to provide public goods in lieu of the government. Fact is, the sector barely existed in Revolutionary times; churches were the only true nonprofits of the day.

But since the 1980s, when President Reagan came to Washington promoting the idea of vouchers and other means to privatize federally funded services, the nonprofit sector has responded with creativity, and it has grown dramatically in number and purpose of organizations.

It could be argued that the tax deductibility of donations to 501(c)3 nonprofit corporations itself it is a government subsidy. But it is a subsidy that applies across all sectors and, I think, does not invite the same kind of political meddling as a subsidy earmarked specifically for journalism.

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