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Debate: Should governments bailout journalism?

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Should governments subsidize journalism, particularly as the industry struggles to survive?


Background and Context of Debate:

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


  • Journalism is public good for democracy, deserves subsidies. Journalism is an important public good. It fosters critical communication between government and citizens as well as between citizens and government at the global, national, state, and even local levels. It fosters "the public debate" and, as a result, it improves decision-making and governance. It is no exaggeration to say that journalism is essential in a thriving democratic society and, therefore, that it is a public good. As with most public goods, government subsidization is often justified, particularly if the public good is at risk of disappearing. Journalism is certainly at risk and even in crisis in the modern Internet era, so should subsidized by government.
Sara Catania. "Hey President Obama, Spare Any Change?". Huffington Post. January 1, 2009 - "Our aspirational society, in order to create a more perfect union, needs journalism. Not gossip, not snark, not uninformed blather that passes for opinion, but good, solid reporting. Investigations, deep features, reporting-driven storytelling. These are the stories that show us who we are, that shape the narrative of our lives and the life of our nation. But it's getting harder to sustain the journalism needed to tell those stories.
There's just one glaring problem: money. The lack of it. The late, great David Halberstam once described the life of a journalist as a donation to society, and I can abide that, to a point. I never expected to rake in the bucks, only to make enough to contribute my share to the family coffers. It seems a reasonable expectation."
  • 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."


  • Subsidization of journalism comes with too many strings. 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.'"
  • NPR/PBS are examples subsidization coming with strings. Declan McCullagh. "Should you be taxed to subsidize 'The New York Times'?". CNET. September 28, 2007 - "I'm sure that at this point, some readers might be thinking, 'What about National Public Radio? It's taxpayer-supported, right?' Yes. NPR and PBS receive about 15 percent of their combined budget from the government. [...] Even though that's not a huge amount by percentage, it has made NPR the target of political threats by President Richard Nixon and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both Republicans, to eliminate its funding. Conservatives say NPR itself has admitted a liberal bias while liberals accuse it of being elitist. Do newspapers really want that controversy spilling over into their pages?"
  • Subsidization damages reporting on government malfeasance. 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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  • 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 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."
  • Society would be better off with creative destruction in journalism. Declan McCullagh. "Should you be taxed to subsidize 'The New York Times'?". CNET. September 28, 2007 - "probably the biggest reason to be wary of higher taxes to help out newspapers is the broader one: Bailing out an industry that's suffering because of technological change or increased competition is not a wise choice in the long run. Afternoon newspapers are largely a defunct breed for the obvious reasons; would society really be better off if taxes were raised to subsidize such money-losing ventures for purposes of nostalgia?"
  • Journalism can and will learn how to monetize demand on its own. Declan McCullagh. "Should you be taxed to subsidize 'The New York Times'?". CNET. September 28, 2007 - "I'm not sure what's going to happen to newspapers in their current form, but I am optimistic about the future of journalism. My own employer, CNET Networks, has found a way to make money by publishing news and reviews without collecting taxpayer handouts. If readers (or viewers) continue to want original reporting, and I believe they will, news organizations will find a way to meet that market demand. Without a taxpayer bailout, newspapers may not look exactly like they do today, but journalism itself will remain alive and well."

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