About That Journalism Bailout

In The Nation, John Nichols and Robert McChesney make the call for direct government intervention to save the nation’s news-gathering faculties. As an out-of-work sometimes-journalist, I’d love to support them. Problem is, the article’s based on bad cliches and mistaken ideas about what ails the industry.

Explaining the problem of declining newspaper sales, they write:

Mired in debt and facing massive losses, the managers of corporate newspaper firms seek to right the sinking ship by cutting costs, leading remaining newspaper readers to ask why they are bothering to pay for publications that are pale shadows of themselves. It is the daily newspaper death dance-cum- funeral march.

I’ve heard this before, but does anyone really believe that any substantial number of long-time newspaper readers dropped their subscriptions because of a lack of some sort of coverage? I’ve heard occasional complaints about media bias (left and right), but mostly, as far as I can tell, people dropped their subscriptions because they could get all the same content — and, in fact, far more — for free on the internet! I’m a news-junkie and a journalism obsessive. I subscribe to about a dozen magazines but not a single newspaper. Why bother? The Post and the Times and every other paper I could possibly want to read are all online, for free. The lack of city council coverage (or whatever) has nothing to do with it.

Ah, but Nichols and McChesney that the decline isn’t caused by the rise of free content on the web — after all, ad revenue declines started before the advent of free news on the net:

Starting in 1990, well before the rise of the web as a competitor for ad dollars, newspaper ad revenues went into a sharp decline, from 26 percent of all media advertising that year to what will likely be around 10 percent this year.

The early 90s is also when cable, and in particular, cable news, really started to kick off (think about how CNN implanted itself in the American consciousness with its coverage of the Gulf War). As cable ascended and other new media options started to trickle into the landscape, wouldn’t it make sense that, regardless of content changes, newspapers would make up less of the overall ad pie?

No wonder young people find mainstream journalism uninviting; it would almost be more frightening if they embraced what passes for news today.

Is that actually true? Previously, Nichols and McChesney groused that news had become celebrity obsessed (“TV news operations have become celebrity- and weather-obsessed “profit centers” rather than the journalistic icons of the Murrow and Cronkite eras.”). But aren’t younger people exactly the audience that drives the press’s celebrity obsession? Compare the traffic of TMZ or Perez Hilton with top political blogs. The shallower corners of news are, as far as I can tell, its most popular.

If we are going to address the crisis in journalism, we have to come up with solutions that provide us with hard-hitting reporting that monitors people in power, that engages all our people, not just the classes attractive to advertisers, and that seeks to draw all Americans into public life.

Earlier, the problem was that advertising was in decline. Now its that corporate news owners cater too much to advertisers. I’m not sure how you reconcile these two ideas. Either way, what Nichols and McChesney have failed to prove is that there are actually fewer readers of journalism. Subscriptions may be down, and with them ad revenues, but I’m pretty sure that, thanks to free and easy access on the web, the major papers are far more well-read than ever before. The circulation of the New York Times, for example, was just shy of 1.2 million in 1993. Now it can reach as high as 9 million in a day. The problem isn’t readership, and it probably isn’t content — it’s monetization. No matter what, most Americans have far easier and comparatively less expensive access to news that at any other time in history.

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.

Are they really trying to argue that freedom of the press is more restricted than ever before? Because in the age of blogs and Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and lord knows what other self-publication tools, I find this hard to believe. Thanks to the web, it’s now easier, faster, cheaper, and simpler to start your own web publication, to report or comment on anything you see, hear, know, or think than ever before. Far from the preserve of the rich, every person in the country now has easy, inexpensive access to their own vanity press.

That, naturally devalues the work of news professionals to some extent, but not so much, I think, that subsidies are in order. Indeed, the dangers of government subsidies to the press are clear, even to Nichols and McChesney, who write that, in their journo-subsidized utopia, “We must have a system that prohibits state censorship and that minimizes commercial control over journalistic values and pursuits. The right of any person to start his or her own medium, commercial or nonprofit, at any time is inviolable.” But they provide no real guidelines about how we might achieve this.

And I really can’t imagine how a government-funded journalism industry wouldn’t push out all else. If you follow debates about health care, you may be familiar with the idea of crowd-out — insurance plans that go through a government connector (and thus are bound by its rules) eventually drive out private plans. In Canada, health-care administrators make it as difficult as possible for private plans to compete with the public system. It’s the nature of government enterprises, and I can’t imagine that wouldn’t be the case under any system resembling what Nichols and McChesney suggest. In the end, what they’re asking for isn’t a free press but a captured press. If that’s saving journalism, perhaps we ought to let it die.