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Debate: Should governments bailout journalism?

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Background and context

In 2008 and 2009, journalism entered what many called a crisis in its existence, with many newspapers and media companies failing to become profitable in the wake on significant shifts to online content and online advertising, in the face of rising competition from classifieds services such as Ebay and Craigslist, and in the face of the 2009 and 2009 financial crisis.[[Image:United States With many major newspapers closing down, such as the Seattle PI and Rocky Mountain News, media companies declaring bankruptcy, The Tribune Company (which owns many of US newspapers) - including the Los Angeles Times - filing for bankruptcy protection in December of 2008, and with significant government bailouts going to the banking and automobile manufacturing industry, many began calling for a "bailout" or government subsidization for the journalism industry.


ariety of proposals have been presented for how the government might "bailout" the journalism industry. Some have suggested a direct lump sum gift to specific companies, amounting, some suggest, to between 5 and 10 billion dollars. Others suggest a tax exemption of various kinds for newspapers, or the elimination of postal fees. Another proposal includes offering credits of around $200 to all citizens to be used to subscribe to any news publication they choose. There is much debate about these approaches, covered below in this pro/con article.


Contents

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Public good: Is journalism a public good warranting of subsization?

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Pro

  • Journalism is public good for democracy, deserves subsidies John Nichols and Robert McChesney. "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers". Nation. March 18, 2009: "We begin with the notion that journalism is a public good, that it has broad social benefits far beyond that between buyer and seller. Like all public goods, we need the resources to get it produced. This is the role of the state and public policy. It will require a subsidy and should be regarded as similar to the education system or the military in that regard. Only a nihilist would consider it sufficient to rely on profit-seeking commercial interests or philanthropy to educate our youth or defend the nation from attack. With the collapse of the commercial news system, the same logic applies. Just as there came a moment when policy-makers recognized the necessity of investing tax dollars to create a public education system to teach our children, so a moment has arrived at which we must recognize the need to invest tax dollars to create and maintain news gathering, reporting and writing with the purpose of informing all our citizens."


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Con


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Crisis? Is journalism in crisis?

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Pro

  • Journalism industry is in crisis, requires government help Sara Catania. "Hey President Obama, Spare Any Change?". Huffington Post. January 1, 2009 - "Attention Barack Obama: journalism needs your help. [...] In 2008 more than 15,500 journalists were laid off or bought out (or, considering the corporate greed driving much of the cuts, laid out and forcibly bought off), a 700 percent increase over the second half of 2007, according to a running tally on Paper Cuts, a website created by a journalist from the St. Louis Post Dispatch. [...] we are in desperate need of some major help. As in government cash. Non-profits like ProPublica and the Poynter Institute can't do all the heavy lifting. [...] With advertising revenues and subscriptions plummeting and newsprint costs soaring, someone needs to help maintain the infrastructure of American journalism."
  • The collapse of journalism would be devastating for society Rosa Brooks. "Bail out journalism". Los Angeles Times. April 9, 2009 - "I also can't imagine anything more dangerous than a society in which the news industry has more or less collapsed. [...] If newspapers become mostly infotainment websites -- if the number of well-trained investigative journalists dwindles still further -- and if we're soon left with nothing but the yapping heads who dominate cable "news" and talk radio, how will we recognize, or hope to forestall, impending national and global crises? How will we know if government officials have made terrible mistakes, as even the best will sometimes do? How will we know if government officials have told us terrible lies, as the worst have sometimes done? A decimated, demoralized and under-resourced press corps hardly questioned the Bush administration's flimsy case for war in Iraq -- and the price for that failure will be paid for generations. [...] It's time for a government bailout of journalism."


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Con

  • Newspapers can succeed by adopting new media Duncan Riley. "Journalist Calls For Government Assistance…For Journalists". The Inquisitr. January 2, 2009 - "That some journalists are finding it tough does not equal there is no money to be had either. Smart journalists, and media companies have embraced new media, and while they may not have replaced their offline revenue streams in full yet, even during the recession online streams at some outlets have actually increased at a time print advertising in particular is dying. The true difference today is that the closed markets of old have been replaced by open markets with vibrant competition, and it is in these spaces that some journalists believe that the market is unfair. The time of Journalism as a closed shop with life long opportunities has passed."
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Independence: Can journalism remain independent while receiving subsidies?

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Pro

  • Journalism has/can maintain independence following subsidization John Nichols and Robert McChesney. "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers". Nation. March 18, 2009: "Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism. We understand that this is a controversial position. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently engineered a $765 million bailout of French newspapers, free marketeers rushed to the barricades to declare, "No, no, not in the land of the free press." Conventional wisdom says that the founders intended the press to be entirely independent of the state, to preserve the integrity of the press. [...] We are sympathetic to that position. [...] Fortunately, the rude calculus that says government intervention equals government control is inaccurate and does not reflect our past or present, or what enlightened policies and subsidies could entail."


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Con

  • Subsidization would damage independence of journalism Declan McCullagh. "Should you be taxed to subsidize 'The New York Times'?". CNET. September 28, 2007 - "The main reason I say the answer should be [that government do] nothing [for the journalism industry] is that government money tends to come with strings attached. Sure, at first, a handout may seem free. But over time, that tends to change. Look at the ongoing controversies over the National Endowment for the Arts. In response to controversial photographs (including a provocative retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work) in an NEA-funded exhibit, Congress did two things. It reduced the NEA's budget for the next fiscal year and then slapped a new restriction on the agency, saying that its grants must take 'into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.'"
  • Subsidization damages journalism's freedom to criticize Declan McCullagh. "Should you be taxed to subsidize 'The New York Times'?". CNET. September 28, 2007 - "One argument for tax subsidies, and the Columbia Journalism Review article invokes it at length, is that newspapers' 'role of informing citizens is crucial to democracy' through aggressive reporting on government malfeasance. But supporting that kind of aggressive reporting, it seems to me, is the worst argument for government funding--it would be the first type of reporting killed, openly or covertly, when the inevitable political pressure is brought to bear. (I wonder if I'd even be permitted to write this commentary if my salary were paid by the government. And would a taxpayer-subsidized newspaper ever publish an editorial calling for lower taxes?)"


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Free markets: Is it best to leave journalism to the markets?

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Pro

  • Leaving journalism to the markets risks degrading the trade Marty Baron, the Editor of the Boston Globe, said at a lecture in April 2009 at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication: "There will be many experiments, many new models. Some will be nonprofit. But many will seek to make a profit, a big one. An era of entrepreneurship for journalism has begun. Entrepreneurship comes with greater risks…. There also are risks for the practice of journalism. There are risks that journalism will turn cynically to the quick, the easy, and the cheap — that a story’s greatest accomplishment will be to get a million page views, rather than to correct an injustice, or unearth wrongdoing, or give voice to people who would not otherwise be heard."[1]
  • Government subsidization of journalism would not be expensive. Robert Kall. "Bail Out Investigative Journalists". Huffington Post. December 17, 2008: "Imagine if the government funded a 'news conservation corps' of 10,000 investigative reporters at $50-80,000 salaries, plus health care benefits -- costing, say, an average of $75,000 each --probably a high estimate. Throw in another $225 million to pay for 3000 more editors. That would cost less than a billion dollars and provide the nation with probably 50 times more investigative reports than we now have. The reporters could work with one or more publishers and their reporting could be open source -- without copyright, just as TV networks share a common feed. Or publishers could share in the cost."
  • Subsidization keeps journalists in work, stimulates economy. John Nichols and Robert McChesney. "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers". Nation. March 18, 2009: "It would keep the press system alive. And it has the added benefit of providing an economic stimulus. If these journalists (and the tens of thousands of production and distribution workers associated with newspapers) are not put to work through the programs we propose, their knowledge and expertise will be lost. They will be unemployed, and their unemployment will contribute to further stagnation and economic decline--especially in big cities where newspapers are major employers."
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Con

  • Government should not bailout journalism in the face of competition. Declan McCullagh. "Should you be taxed to subsidize 'The New York Times'?". CNET. September 28, 2007 - "everyone says they like competition in theory, but nobody actually likes to have competitors in practice. For the better part of a decade, Craigslist and eBay have been slowly nibbling away at newspapers' classified-ads business. A 2005 MediaPost article says that as a result, according to McKinsey, newspapers have lost as much as 75 percent of their pricing abilities in key categories such as employment and general merchandise. Google is another competitive threat, with both broad and very targeted ads, and the cost of newsprint probably isn't helping. [...] So the threat to newspapers' long-term existence, at least in their current form, is real. The real question is: what should the government do about it? [...] I believe that the answer is nothing. We didn't see taxpayer subsidies bail out stock brokers (unhappy about E*Trade) or travel agents (unhappy about Expedia). In fact, the federal government officially chose to side with disruptive technologies."
  • Government should not preserve newspapers that fail in markets Ken McIntyre, a media and public policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, was quoted in an April 16, 2009 Fox News article: "Licensing is a simplistic solution for historic trends battering the traditional newspaper industry." He continued that the government should not "preserve businesses that free enterprise and competition marked for failure -- or a transition into something else."[2]
Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, testified at an April 2009 Congressional hearing against any government bailout of journalism: "It is especially important to resist the temptation of bailouts because the first papers to fail will be those who least deserve a bailout. Those are the papers whose own business decisions placed them under a crushing debt-load in pursuit of consolidated ownership and short-term gains. Few could welcome handing Sam Zell a fat check from the Treasury after his ill-fated adventure with the Tribune Company. That’s not to say we should let the journalism or the journalists fade away. But there are other ways to preserve those critical elements that do not involve bailouts."[3]
Keith Cameron. "Bailing out print journalism would only prolong the inevitable". Northern Star. April 15, 2009: "The industry as a whole does not need to be saved, and news reporting can still be profitable without government aid."
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NPR/PBS: Are these organizations good examples of subsidization?

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Pro

  • NPR/PBS are great examples of what subsidization can achieve. NPR and PBS are great examples of how government subsidization can grow thriving news organizations. They are also good examples of how government subsidization does not generally impede on independent reporting. NPR and PBS both include edgy programs and have heavily criticized the government for its actions. In reality, government subsidies do not get in the way of what NPR and PBS see as their journalistic obligation to remain independent and provide citizens with sometimes critical reports of their government, when those reports are warranted.
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Decentralized journalism: Is decentralized journalism and citizen journalism inadequate?

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Pro

  • Citizen-journalists cannot replace professional journalism. John Nichols and Robert McChesney. "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers". Nation. March 18, 2009: "The Internet and blogosphere, too, depend in large part on "old media" to do original journalism. Web links still refer readers mostly to stories that first appeared in print. Even in more optimistic scenarios, no one has a business model to sustain digital journalism beyond a small number of self-supporting services. The attempts of newspapers to shift their operations online have been commercial failures, as they trade old media dollars for new media pennies. We are enthusiastic about Wikipedia and the potential for collaborative efforts on the web; they can help democratize our media and politics. But they do not replace skilled journalists on the ground covering the events of the day and doing investigative reporting. Indeed, the Internet cannot achieve its revolutionary potential as a citizens' forum without such journalism."


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Con

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Postal rates: Should governments cut postal rates for some newspapers?

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Pro

  • Cutting postal rates would help quality newspapers survive. John Nichols and Robert McChesney. "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers". Nation. March 18, 2009: "In the near term, we need to think about an immediate journalism economic stimulus, to be revisited after three years, and we need to think big. Let's eliminate postal rates for periodicals that garner less than 20 percent of their revenues from advertising. This keeps alive all sorts of magazines and journals of opinion that are being devastated by distribution costs. It is these publications that often do investigative, cutting-edge, politically provocative journalism."


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Con

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Subsidizing viewers/readers: Should governments subsidize viewers/readers?

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Pro

  • Government should subsidize readers, maintain competition. John Nichols and Robert McChesney. "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers". Nation. March 18, 2009: "Let's give all Americans an annual tax credit for the first $200 they spend on daily newspapers. The newspapers would have to publish at least five times per week and maintain a substantial "news hole," say at least twenty-four broad pages each day, with less than 50 percent advertising. In effect, this means the government will pay for every citizen who so desires to get a free daily newspaper subscription, but the taxpayer gets to pick the newspaper--this is an indirect subsidy, because the government does not control who gets the money. This will buy time for our old media newsrooms--and for us citizens--to develop a plan to establish journalism in the digital era. We could see this evolving into a system to provide tax credits for online subscriptions as well."
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Con

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Pro/con sources

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