by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 18, 2010
HOW TO SAVE AMERICAN JOURNALISM
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I read "The Death and Life of American Journalism" by media professor and activist Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation, with great interest, and not just because I've been a professional journalist in one form or another for nearly 30 years.
The subject of this book - how to preserve journalism's role as a counterbalance to corporate and governmental power and as the essential institution in a properly-functioning democracy - is dear to my heart. Yes, I realize that journalism is a business, and despite the naysayers, it still is a profitable one. But to me, journalism is also a public service.
That's why the founders of our nation made protection of a free press the First Amendment of our Constitution. Jefferson, Madison and the others who shaped that document rightfully argued that you couldn't have a free government without its citizens having access to the information they needed to govern themselves. That's why the still-young federal government provided massive postal and printing subsidies to help newspapers grow.
The journalism model that evolved in the United States is that of news produced by privately owned, for-profit organizations. It is a model that works, provided you have advertisers willing to pay the bulk of the cost of production and, in the case of print media, subscribers willing to pay some of those costs. But journalism costs money and takes talent to produce. And the current business model of American journalism can't sustain the cost and resources it takes to produce it.
That business model - a monopoly newspaper, usually owned by a chain, that controls a given market and can charge advertisers dearly for that status - no longer exists in most cities. The advertisers are spending their money elsewhere, and the readers are turning their backs on papers that are getting skimpier as they become more expensive to buy.
At a small town paper such as the Brattleboro Reformer, where I've toiled for more than a dozen years, monopoly still means profit, albeit a modest one. But that profit is whisked away to the corporate headquarters of the chain that owns us - MediaNews Group, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year - and almost nothing is reinvested into the Reformer. Before, the Reformer was profitable because it controlled the daily and weekly markets and advertisers had little choice. Today, we maintain profitability mainly because we have a bare-bones staff and because our commercial printing operation makes money putting out other publications.
The most obvious solution to support quality journalism is to do what other nations do - publicly fund it through the government. McChesney and Nichols focus on a broad set of proposals that include vouchers for readers to support the online or print publication of their choice, an AmeriCorps-type program for aspiring reporters, reduced postage rates for periodicals and tax credits to fund journalists' salaries. The projected price tag to do this would be roughly $35 billion, paid for by new taxes on consumer electronics and advertising.
These sound like crazy ideas that would be totally unfeasible in today's financial and political climate. But it's not so crazy when you look at how the rest of the world helps subsidize journalism.
The United States spends less per capita on public media - just $1.35 a year - than most wealthy democracies. By comparison, Finland and Denmark spend $101, the United Kingdom spends $80, Japan and Ireland spend $59, Slovakia spends $52, Germany and Australia spend about $26, Canada about $23 and South Korea $8.20.
The total federal support for American public broadcast media is about $500 million, or about what it costs our military to occupy Iraq for three days. That tells you all you need to know why public broadcasting has not lived up to its promise in the United States. Only 40 percent of public broadcasting revenue comes from federal, state or local government, which means that National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service are heavily dependent on corporate underwriting.
Just like our health care system needs a strong public option as a counterbalance to the medical-industrial complex, our media system also needs a public option that's independent in its reporting and insulated from partisan political attacks. And just like we don't leave it to private nonprofits to maintain our roads or to outfit our military, why should public media be forced to beg its readers, listeners and viewers for support of something that is a public good - the news and information needed for a democracy to properly function?
Government funding of media will not turn radio and television stations or newspapers and magazines into propaganda outlets. The British Broadcasting Corporation stands as Exhibit A of this. While American broadcasters rely on stringers or talking heads in the studio to cover international events, the BBC has 44 foreign bureaus scattered around the world and nearly always has one of its reporters on the scene when news is happening. That's because the BBC receives more than $5.6 billion in government money, funded through an annual television license fee of roughly $210 accessed on viewers in the UK. Again, covering the news costs money, and commercial broadcast news operations in the U.S. have long ago discovered that it's easier and cheaper to talk about the news instead going out to report the news.
Another business model suggested by McChesney and Nichols is the low-profit limited liability corporation, or L3C. It's designed to attract significant investment in projects designed to serve charitable or community interests.
The L3C model was first recognized as a legal structure in Vermont in 2008. It has since been adopted by Michigan, Wyoming, Utah and North Dakota. L3Cs formed in these states can be used in other states. Unlike a standard limited liability company, or LLC, a L3C has an explicit mission to do good first and make profits second. Unlike a charity, a L3C can distribute the profits to owners and investors. In short, a L3C much more flexible than purely nonprofit status, but with many of its tax advantages.
To their credit, McChesney and Nichols don't blame the Internet for journalism's woes, nor do they see the Internet as the potential savior. They point out that media outlets have been cutting back on their staffing since the early 1990s. And they point out that no one has yet come up with an online business model that works. There are few independent journalists who are supporting themselves in online journalism today.
But business models and government aid proposals aside, the most important thing that McChesney and Nichols' book does is to makes the case that the costs of saving serious journalism are miniscule compared to the cost to our democracy if it is allowed wither away.
As someone who deals with the daily struggle of trying to put out a decent newspaper with steadily diminishing resources, I can tell you that the crisis in journalism is real. Newspapers are dying and nothing has yet come along to fully take their place. We need bold, and persistent, experimentation to come up with a way to preserve the essential functions of journalism in a new age. "The Death and Life of American Journalism" serves as a guide for what all of us can do to create a new birth of public service reporting for a new century.
AR Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He currently is the day editor and editorial writer for the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.