Government-supported journalism

Writing for the Washington Post, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols advocate a renewed government effort to support journalism.

This has sparked a predictable round of mild paranoia (government support can become government control).

But it might be useful to take a look at the many ways in which government already contributes to journalism, through funding and policy, in ways that benefit the citizenry of the United States.

The big obvious examples are broadcasting.

Public broadcasting, US-style: The federal government funds about one out of every eight dollars spent on public TV and public radio through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. About twice that support comes from state and even local governments (example: Atlanta Public Schools).

Public broadcasting, global-style: The US government directly funds Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. (I've never been to VOA, but I've visited RFE/RL, and I can tell you the people who work there are militant about being journalists and not propagandists. Too bad we can't say the same about some of our domestic commercial broadcasters.) In addition, foreign governments fund huge broadcasting operations such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Canada, RFI/France24, and so on. Some programming from these foreign services winds up on American broadcast channels.

But print, too, is subsidized, less directly.

Preferential postal rates: Since the earliest days of the Post Office, newspapers have been the beneficiaries of special treatment intended to encourage their publication and circulation. The definition of a newspaper is entangled with assumptions of a business model; there's a limit on the average percentage of advertising in the product, and a requirement of paid circulation. Mailed circulation is no longer a major factor in American daily journalism, but it's still important to many weeklies, especially in rural areas.

Legal notice publication requirements: These serve the public by enforcing disclosure of certain information such as tax assessments. In most states these are published at a statutory rate that can provide major windfall revenue for small newspapers. In some cases, "official newspaper" status has evolved into a political favor, with tax money channeled into tiny "legal publications" circulated among bankers and lawyers. In an Internet era, you might wonder whether the public purpose of disclosure could better be met through the Web.

There are other policy implementations that you might also argue are broken, but their original intent was to promote a diversity of editorial and journalistic voices.

Cross-ownership restrictions: This one is fairly recent. Since 1975, the FCC has prohibited common ownership of a daily newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same market. Over 40 existing cross-ownerships were "grandfathered" when the rule was implemented; many still exist. The intent was to prevent consolidation from turning local markets into real monopolies.

Newspaper Preservation Act: In 1970, Congress formally exempted newspapers from antitrust restrictions, allowing them to combine their business operations while maintaining separate news-editorial staffs. The tragic flaw is that the law doesn't require the joint agencies to actually publish two newspapers, and most have ended in a paper being killed anyway.

Some less obvious sources of government support of journalism:

Journalism education: In the United States, journalism organizations benefit tremendously from a stream of employees who are trained at state expense, not at the employer's expense. It's easy to overlook this benefit and it should be noted that this is not universally the case around the world.

Newsrack locations: If you went around chaining vending machines to lampposts, you could expect them to be removed and junked rather quickly in most cities. However, publications are allowed to set up newsracks just about everywhere with fairly little regulation and generally without having to pay rent.

Preferential treatment: For years, news organizations have enjoyed preferential access to newsmakers, office space for press rooms in government buildings, etc.

Many of these policies are built around assumptions that are no longer true in an era when anyone can set up shop as a journalist with no more investment than a laptop and a cup of coffee at Starbuck's. It's not unreasonable to ask what policies we should have going forward, although we need to be very careful about the answers to that question.