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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:

Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md. proposed legislation in March that would allow newspapers to operate as tax-exempt nonprofits as long as they don't endorse political candidates.

Nichols and Robert McChesney suggested in an April 6 cover piece in The Nation that the government eliminate postal fees for smaller papers and periodicals and offer tax credits for newspaper subscriptions to help save the media.[1]

Looking for more direct assistance, the company that owns two Philadelphia papers approached Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell in January seeking a $10 million bailout to help cover its massive debts -- and it's not the only conglomerate that's hurting.

The Tribune Company, which owns many of the nation's leading papers, including the Los Angeles Times, filed for bankruptcy protection in December. Many more newspapers have closed their doors, like the Rocky Mountain News, or have ended their print editions, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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.


  • 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?"

Crisis? Is journalism in crisis?


  • 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."


  • Journalism is not dying, it is more alive and open than ever. Duncan Riley. "Journalist Calls For Government Assistance…For Journalists". The Inquisitr. January 2, 2009 - "The argument that journalism is dying has already been disproved many times before. It is the last argument of those unable to adapt to the new reality of publishing news. Quite the opposite, journalism, in its many forms is the strongest it has ever been in the history of man kind. No longer is the written word the exclusive domain of an elite few, and guided by media proprietors with set agendas."
  • Journalists having difficulty have not adapted to modern 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."

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


  • 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."[2]
  • Only government support can restore quality journalism. John Nichols and Robert McChesney. "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers". Nation. March 18, 2009: "it is not just newspapers that are in crisis; it is the institution of journalism itself. By any measure, journalism is missing from most commercial radio. TV news operations have become celebrity- and weather-obsessed 'profit centers' rather than the journalistic icons of the Murrow and Cronkite eras. [...] The old corporate media system choked on its own excess. We should not seek to restore or re-create it. We have to move forward to a system that creates a journalism far superior to that of the recent past. ... We can do exactly that--but only if we recognize and embrace the necessity of government intervention. ... Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism."
  • Government subsidizes many things, it should subsidize journalism too. Rosa Brooks. "Bail out journalism". Los Angeles Times. April 9, 2009: "If we're willing to use taxpayer money to build roads, pay teachers and maintain a military; if we're willing to bail out banks and insurance companies and failing automakers, we should be willing to part with some public funds to keep journalism alive too."
  • Government can subsidize readers/viewers; maintain competition. The government can offer a tax credit for the first $200 or so taxpayers spend on newspaper subscriptions. This would ensure that no particular news company was favored over another, and that the success of individual companies was still driven by their ability to attract subscribers, readers, or watchers.


  • 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 the 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."[3]
  • Journalism can monetize demand without government bailout. 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."

Independence: Can journalism remain independent while receiving subsidies?


  • 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."
  • Government subsidization of journalism is common around the world. Rosa Brooks. "Bail out journalism". Los Angeles Times. April 9, 2009 - "If the thought of government subsidization of journalism seems novel, it shouldn't. Most other democracies provide far more direct government support for public media than the U.S. does (Canada spends 16 times as much per capita; Britain spends 60 times as much). And as Nichols and McChesney point out, our government already 'doles out tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect [media] subsidies,' including free broadcast, cable and satellite privileges."

"Our founders never thought that freedom of the press would belong only to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the notion that journalism should be regarded as the private preserve of the Rupert Murdochs and John Malones. The founders would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the current equation that seems to say that if rich people determine there is no good money to be made in the news, then society cannot have news. Let's find a king and call it a day."


  • 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 government. 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?)"

NPR/PBS: Are these organizations good examples of subsidization?


  • 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.


  • 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?"

Decentralized journalism: Is decentralized journalism and citizen journalism inadequate?


  • 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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