Paying for the public good: How do we keep newspapers afloat?

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—With so many newspapers no longer published, it’s tempting to get nostalgic about the golden days of journalism. It’s also easy to wag a finger toward the Internet and the recession to lay blame for the death of those newspapers. To do either would be inaccurate, says journalist, author, and University of Illinois communications professor Robert McChesney: “There was no golden age of journalism.”

The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again is the latest book McChesney has co-authored with longtime writing partner, John Nichols. In it, they say the print and broadcast media consolidation of the 1970s set up the recent years of layoffs and closures. It’s not the digital age that killed newspapers—journalism has been gutted over decades and its failure to thrive is due in part to how it has been viewed.

“We really can’t think about journalism as a traditional private commodity like chewing gum or hamburgers or baseball mitts or whatever you want to pay for,” McChesney says. “We should think about journalism as the public good.”

Military defense, public education, and the national parks fall into the same category, McChesney says. They’re the vital, economic necessities that allow for a functional and literate society, which, if left to the market to create and regulate, either wouldn’t happen or couldn’t happen in sufficient quantity and quality to affect everyone.

The public good in journalism has been obscured to Americans for the last century, he says, because of the quirky confluence of events that produced an ad revenue system and made journalism highly profitable for a very long time. The fallacy, according to McChesney, was the belief that ad revenue was directly tied to journalism and would continue indefinitely.

“Last year for the first time in its history, The New York Times got less than 50 percent of its revenues from advertising, which is astonishing,” McChesney says. “It would have been unthinkable in the last 100 years for any newspaper to say that, let alone The New York Times, and that’s the future for all of them.”

Even so, the future of journalism doesn’t have to be bleak and McChesney is optimistic. While he is clear there is no quick fix, there are opportunities to decouple company-driven revenues from how journalists can make a living. And he stresses they do need to make a living income if the profession is to survive. “Journalists need to get paid in advance to produce journalism,” McChesney says. “So many of them are chasing grants, micro labs, micro this, micro that. That’s because they’re making micro amounts of money.”

Nonprofit news organizations such as the Bay Area News Project and ProPublica are helping to foster other venues for journalists, but grant and donor funding can be a dicey business. When the money dries up or goes elsewhere, there are no guarantees replacement funding will come along.

McChesney’s and Nichols’ big argument for sustainable journalism rests in their call for additional public media government subsidies. They say it will elevate competition as well as provide more places for ideological diversity and watchdogs of special interests. But this is a tough sell. Most journalists blanch at the idea of government support. McChesney counters we only have to look at other democracies—for example, Britain, Holland, and Canada—to understand that government allocations do not mean government interference. Moreover, he says Americans are steeped in a tradition of government subsidies for media whether or not they are aware of it. Those subsidies can be traced to the founding of our country and the creation of the Post Office.

McChesney also advocates a voucher system where every adult over the age of 18 would be able to allocate $200 to the news media outlet of choice: left, right, and anywhere in between. With the pooled monies, a city or even a neighborhood could create its own newsroom to make sure its activities were covered. If the publicly funded newsroom didn’t fulfill quality expectations, those who allocated their individual $200 could choose to fund another media outlet. Media outlets that accepted the public money would have to agree to upload what was produced and maintain open online access.

To those who claim the Internet alone will fill the void, and despite what online journalism there already is, McChesney says the Internet has destroyed more jobs than those it created. While a subscription model may work for very specialized media outlets or perhaps for a finite period on news sites, pay-for-access won’t be able to provide the kind of ongoing income to fund independent journalism any more than could subscriptions of newspapers.

According to this month’s Pew Research Center report, State of News Media 2010, 35 percent of Americans say they have a favorite destination news spot. If asked to pay for it, only 19 percent would shell out the money. People usually pay for what they value. Does this mean that as a society the majority of us don’t value independent journalism? Not necessarily. Citing the focus groups he and Nichols ran five years ago, McChesney says most of those who participated wanted to make sure that public media would be funded even if they didn’t use it. “They just wanted to know it was there,” he says.

That’s a more uplifting finding. Less positive is how the substance of news and what passes for news has radically changed over the last 50 years during the growth of the PR industry. McChesney laments that there are now four PR people for every journalist in America. By 2014, he expects that ratio to climb to 8:1.

“Even if we lose newsrooms, most people know that doesn’t mean there won’t be news—but it will be trivia and garbage,” McChesney says. “It will be the Golden Age of Complete Propaganda.”

With spin masquerading as news, consumer behavior continuing to change, and no sustainable business model, what’s McChesney’s basic advice to keep independent journalism alive?

“Be a citizen not a consumer.”

Robert McChesney is a co-founder of the media reform network Free Press. Two years ago, the Utne Reader listed McChesney among their “50 visionaries who are changing the world.” The entire interview with him is on the Town Square archive at