Should the Government Bail Out Journalism?

Newspapers (that is: news, on paper) might not be essential for democracy, but some form of journalism certainly is. And journalism, as you might have heard, is struggling. Gone are the lucrative classifieds. Stripped are the ad-laden car and real estate sections that helped to cross-subsidize the expensive work of reporting war from an overseas bureau. Local and loyal newspaper readers have scattered across the Internet. Their attention spans have scattered, too, and ad revenue has dwindled. 

Is it time for another bailout? Should the government save the news? Lee Bollinger argues yes, for at least two reasons.

First, we depend on publicly funded news, already. The BBC, PBS and NPR all receive federal funding. The artery from federal coffers isn't always large or direct -- NPR applies for competitive grants and gets about 2 percent of its funding from the federally supported organizations like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts -- but it's undeniably public funding. And yet, the BBC, PBS and NPR are consistently among the most trusted sources of news.

Second, as Bollinger points out, there are other publicly funded institutions we commonly accept as independent from federal control. "The most compelling are our public universities and our federal programs for dispensing billions of dollars annually for research," he writes. "Those of us in public and private research universities care every bit as much about academic freedom as journalists care about a free press."

Bollinger's broader point -- serious news struggles to pay for itself -- isn't special to the recession. Newspapers rarely made bank on the kind of undercover investigative stories about City Hall, or Kabul. The money came from somewhere else. Somewhere else used to mean classifieds and lucrative leisure sections. But as James Fallows wrote in his cover story on Google and the news, "the Internet has been one giant system for stripping away such cross-subsidies."

So there are a few ways to recoup the missing subsidy. For some companies, that will mean seeking rich benefactors (obvious example: Carlos Slim). For others, it will mean relying on foundations. For others, it might mean relying -- partially, even indirectly -- on government-funding. All of these additional sources of income theoretically compromise news-gathering, because the news is beholden to outside sources who might themselves become newsworthy. But some combination of outside support will probably become increasingly necessary as journalism continues to undergo wrenching change and unspectacular revenue growth. It doesn't have to be a terrifying future. In fact, we've been living with it for decades.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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