The Brass Tack

Let's get down to it.

Subsidizing the press: newspapers or news?

Posted by srconstantin on July 18, 2009

Paul Starr of Princeton and the American Prospect thinks maybe we should, but in a viewpoint-neutral way:

Public policy in the United States didn’t always put the public press at a relative disadvantage. Beginning in the 1790s, when most papers were partisan, Congress subsidized their development through postal policy. The postal rates for sending newspapers through the mail were set below cost, and editors could exchange copies with one another at no charge. Congress also refrained from taxing newspapers, a legacy of colonial opposition to Britain’s Stamp Act. These postal and tax policies — unlike the subsidies that the president and other officials gave their own party papers through printing contracts and government advertising — benefited newspapers across the board. In the language of modern First Amendment law, the postal subsidies were “viewpoint-neutral.” As Madison and other founders envisaged, they didn’t just promote newspapers; they also helped to knit together the young republic and sustain its political life.

As Clay Shirky pointed out, news for people who followed politics closely had always been subsidized: by advertisements observed by the eyeballs of people who picked up a newspaper for the classifieds or the sports scores or the weather. Now, classifieds, sports, weather, financial stats, and so on are available outside of newspapers, which is why ad revenue isn’t enough for papers anymore; information has come unbundled. So maybe we need another kind of subsidy.

Notice that trade periodicals have done fine even as newspapers have crumbled. This is partly because the subscriptions are paid for by readers’ employers. So it’s worth wondering whether employers who need globally literate workers — probably anything in international business, to start with — could buy newspaper subscriptions. It would work something like academic journal subscriptions: no content is free, but everyone has a pre-paid subscription, so reading is free on the margin. But that could become a problem for the free press, as employers would probably choose newspapers friendly to their policies or institutional culture. The same applies to the dream of having foundations fund investigative journalism. That can be a part, but not the whole, of the solution for news; I wouldn’t feel adequately informed in a world where all my information came from think tanks.

Normally, I don’t argue for the government to subsidize a thing just because I like it a lot. (The NSF, NEH, and Smithsonian are my big exceptions. Science is my bread and butter, and art is my joy.) But there’s a case to be made that newspapers are a genuine public good. The thing is, people don’t choose to read “hard news” when they have other options: politics, war, and international relations take a back seat to culture and opinion (and lolcats). And the result is a less educated citizenry. We used to have a newspaper system that effectively forced people to get some neutrally presented hard news, but we don’t anymore. Like a high-school education, not everybody really needs a newspaper to make it through life; you could earn a paycheck without knowing the capital of France or the current president of the US. We accept that such an outcome is worth preventing when it comes to education; we might do the same when it comes to self-education through news.

There’s always the question of what a newspaper is, of course. Is a blog a newspaper? Is Rolling Stone? I think any government attempt to distinguish newspapers from non-newspapers will damage freedom of the press; we have to be more careful with a newspaper subsidy than with, say, a corn subsidy. Besides, even things that are clearly not newspapers (Twitter) can provide news. If the newspapers vanished but news persisted, we’d still have an educated population; the problem is that without newspapers, there may be less news.

An alternative idea — I’m dreaming wildly — is an NSF for investigative journalism. You write in with your credentials and a proposal for a story, to be published anywhere, newspaper, blog, giant blimp, whatever. Within hours, if you’re judged legitimate, you get a small government grant to pursue the story. We’d be subsidizing news, not newspapers. The problem, of course, is speed: I have no idea if it would be possible to make these kinds of decisions on the fly in a bureaucracy, but they are made on the fly in newsrooms, as editors decide which stories are worth running. This “journalism fund” doesn’t get away from the neutrality issue — what if the government doesn’t want a story to leak? — but it doesn’t deny the existence of new media, the way subsidizing newspapers would.

Starr says, “We need the modern equivalent of the postal subsidies of the early American republic, except that there ought to be no bias in favor of publications that appear in print.” But we want to have a bias in favor of news, as opposed to celebrity gossip, weather, classified ads, humor, or personal blogs. So it seems that Starr’s subsidy is hard to implement unless the government takes it upon itself to distinguish news from non-news.

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