American society relies on a strong news industry to provide the information needed for self-governance. That information flow is threatened as the news industry struggles financially, cutting budgets and laying off reporters.
The problem with most of the trendy proposals on how to save journalism, however, is that they rely heavily on government intervention and funding. Further, there is a growing assumption that government must somehow be involved in “saving” journalism.
It is one thing for the government to meddle in the banking or auto industries, but jumping in to fix journalism’s problems is another. The ability of the press to independently scrutinize and report on government would be forever altered should Congress try to change the structure or financing of a free press. Government involvement necessarily brings government strings. The press simply can’t be a watchdog of government while relying on direct or even indirect federal funding.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., introduced The Newspaper Revitalization Act in 2009, which would essentially let newspapers become tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. The problem with this proposed legislation is that government defines what constitutes a newspaper. A government-defined paper would be one that publishes for general circulation and carries “stories of interest to the general public.”
A recent proposal to fund local news reporting comes from the media-reform organization, Free Press. This plan recommends that public media outlets play a larger role in covering local news, with funding coming from a trust created with government-provided revenues. An increased role for public media in journalism is worthy of discussion, but the apparatus needed to generate the billions of dollars for the trust creates concern.
Journalism does need to be saved. There have been big drops in the commercial news sectors of newspapers, local television and radio, and network television in the past few years. Thousands of reporting jobs have been cut, meaning that the citizenry now gets fewer stories and a compressed news agenda. That hurts our democracy. New journalistic approaches such as citizen journalists and bloggers can’t fill the gaps.
Saving journalism should be led by the profession itself. News consumers abandoned traditional news outlets, in part, because of perceptions that the media are biased and sensational. The industry needs to reconvince citizens about the importance of news and demonstrate that they are not “informed” just because they watch “The Daily Show” and spend hours on social-networking websites.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.