Why We Need to Subsidize Journalism. An Exclusive Interview with Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols.
Robert W. McChesney teaches in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation and the associate editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.
They’re the co-founders, with Josh Silver, of the media reform group Free Press, and McChesney and Nichols have written several books together, none better or more urgent than their latest one, entitled “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again.”
Matthew Rothschild: Let’s get to the heart of the current crisis, which is that newspapers, at least print newspapers, are dying. Why is that?
John Nichols: I can say, as someone who’s been a print journalist since I was 11 years old that I don’t think they’re dying because people don’t want news anymore but because of a lot of factors that we talk about in the book that are not talked about very much. The primary one is that the people who own most of the newspapers are not interested in civic or democratic values. They’re interested in commercial and entertainment values, and primarily to make a lot of money. Many of them acquired big newspapers at huge costs; they paid more than they should have for them. And while they’re still making money, it’s not enough for them to post the 30 percent to 40 percent profits that they want. So rather than accepting that reality and readjusting, some of them are actually closing newspapers. We’ve seen the Seattle Post Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News close, as well as about 140 smaller papers last year. We have threats to big dailies in San Francisco, Detroit, Boston, and other places.
But the more serious problem is with the papers that are staying open. The way these very large corporations keep them functioning, if you will, is by laying off journalists. Over the last two years, newspapers have been laying off or firing more than 1,000 reporters a month. Those numbers are just devastating. Those employees are the people who staff Washington bureaus, city hall bureaus, who cover our government, who really keep the lights on of our civic life.
What’s happening with the death of newspapers—and really the death of radio journalism and a lot of TV journalism—is a shuttering of our democratic discourse. It’s very unhealthy.
Robert McChesney: If I can add to that: We emphasize newspapers in the book because radio and television journalism is basically dead. That was slaughtered off by corporate conglomerate owners over the past two decades. It wasn’t too long ago, we can all remember in the 1970s, when everyone thought TV journalism would somehow usurp the role of newspapers. Well, no one talks in those terms anymore.
The point John’s making is crucial. A lot of the conventional wisdom thinks that the cause of the decline of journalism today is that the Internet killed it, and it destroyed the business model, or that the Great Recession took away advertising, and had the Internet not come along, or had the Great Recession not taken place, everything would be just fine and journalism would be quite strong. What we demonstrate in the book— and I think the evidence is fairly overwhelming—is that the crisis of journalism began decades ago. The profit motive ultimately is not compatible with the public service of journalism, particularly when it’s sheathed in a conglomerate that makes its money by stripping newsrooms for parts of monopolistic environments.
Matthew Rothschild: In a lot of journalism forums, editors are saying if we’d only responded better to the Internet, if we’d only done this, that, or the other thing, we’d still be alive. That’s not your analysis?
Robert McChesney: No, not at all. This crisis was in full throttle before the Internet affected it. And the Internet has basically made permanent the crisis and accelerated the crisis and made it irreversible.
John Nichols: On the flipside of blaming the Internet for the decline of newspapers is the fantasy that the Internet is somehow replacing the newspaper. There’s a great new Pew study that is focused on Baltimore. It looked at all the news coverage from every outlet: on line, broadcast, print, and what they came up with was this: 4 percent of news stories were being broken by Internet news organizations. The overwhelming majority was coming from the print press, the Baltimore Sun.
But here’s the problem: The study showed that the Baltimore Sun has dramatically fewer employees and was breaking roughly half as many stories as they were 20 years ago. So here’s what we have: The shutting down of newspapers, the decline of newspapers, while at the same time with no real replacement by the Web. All the Web is doing is aggregating what little coverage is still done by the newspaper. It’s a disastrous circumstance. If the Web was replacing newspapers, great, wonderful. But that’s not happening. What we’re doing is creating a void. The news we need as citizens is falling into that void.
Matthew Rothschild: That’s the point you make in the book, that the death of newspapers is terrible for our democracy. Why is it? How is it?
Robert McChesney: This is a fundamental of democratic theory: that you have to have an informed citizenry if you’re going to have not even self-government, but any semblance of the rule of law and a constitutional republic, because people in power will almost always gravitate to doing things to benefit themselves that will be to the harm of the Republic, unless they’re held accountable, even if they’re democratically elected. That’s built into our constitutional system. And that’s why the framers of the Constitution were obsessed with a free press; they were obsessed with understanding if you don’t have a credible press system, the Constitution can’t work. And that’s why the Framers in the first several generations of the Republic, members of Congress and the President, put into place extraordinary press subsidies to create a press system that never would have existed had it been left to the market. In the book we chronicle these subsidies, and we do some original research and compile the great historical record that’s been done over the past few decades. And I think anybody who reads the book is actually astounded at the extent to which we had a heavily subsidized press system for the first 75 years of the nation’s history. If you took the postal subsidies and the printing subsidies just out of Washington alone and calculated what their value would be today as a percentage of GDP, if the federal government spent the same amount of money today subsidizing journalism, it would be $30 billion.
Matthew Rothschild: And that’s a crucial antecedent to your point toward the end of your book about the need for press subsidies today. And I want to get to those in a little bit but I do want to talk a little more about the dying newspapers. The problem is, as you were suggesting, John, is who’s going to be covering the stories? Who’s going to breaking the stories? And what kind of institutional support do you need to break a story?
John Nichols: What happens when we decrease the number of paid reporters digging out stories, where does our news come from? Again I turn to this Pew study that just came out. What they found out in Baltimore is as you dramatically decrease the number of reporters covering local, state, even federal government at that level, more and more stories—in fact, a disproportionate amount of stories—is generated by government. The mayor says something . . . the governor says something. And that’s the story. What you lose is the reporter who goes out and does an investigative story, or just digs on a daily basis, finds a story, breaks it, and then government has to respond. What we’re really seeing is a reversal: Instead of journalists speaking truth to power, challenging power, hopefully pushing it to address important matters, we see government making statements, taking actions, and then journalists responding to it, this is a very, very unhealthy pattern in a democratic society.
Robert McChesney: In fact, John, if I could interject, that’s even an optimistic look, because it’s not just government. One of the things we did in the research for the book that was most striking to us was that we calculated the number of PR officials and the number of journalists per 100,000 people. And in the early 1960s, there were more journalists than PR people. By the early 1980s, there were more PR people than journalists. And the gap has increasingly grown. As the number of journalists per 100,000 has shrunk considerably, the number of PR agents has almost doubled and even tripled. And these PR agents include government people, but they also include the corporate community. And so the news on public affairs issues that affect corporate interests, like health care, like the environment, a lot of it’s going to be coming increasingly from self-interested PR people.
Matthew Rothschild: We’ve talked about the problems. I want to talk about proposed solutions that are out there and why you don’t think those are going to work and then get to the solutions that you yourself propose. The first proposed solution is from what you call the “Internet fabulists,“ who believe the Internet is going to solve everything. Why isn’t the Internet going to solve the problem of reporting?
Robert McChesney: The problem with the Internet is that there is no evidence yet that there’s going to be, through the marketplace, anywhere near the resources to generate the number of paid journalists that comes remotely close to what we’ve expected in this country in the past and what we need to make self-government journalism work. The number of paid journalists who make their income today through Internet journalism probably could fit into a small room. It’s simply an almost nonexistent number: the number that earn it through the marketplace and are not bankrolled by some foundation.
And if you add in the ones who are bankrolled by foundations, the number goes up to maybe 50 people. The idea that this number is going to expand to 100,000 people in our lifetimes is preposterous. All these organizations are scrambling for money. The truth of the matter is that journalism is a public good. It’s one of those things that the market cannot satisfy. And the fact that advertising came along and supported it for 100 years and provided all its resources gave us the illusion that it was a market-driven phenomenon. Advertisers don’t need journalism. They’ve jumped ship, and they’re not coming back. So, if it’s a public good, we can’t count on the market, any more than the market will give us national parks, or national defense, or public education.
Matthew Rothschild: Some in the foundation world understand that. They think, maybe we should pour our money in here. They recognize that it’s a public good that’s failing us. Why won’t foundations be able to pick up the slack?
John Nichols: Let me give you a notion here: They don’t have enough money! Foundations just took it on the chin when we crashed the economy a year or so ago. In fact, so hard that some of our civic organizations that have big names—Common Cause, ACLU—have really been scrambling economically. At the end of the day, the notion that foundations or wealth individuals are going to come in and somehow subsidize journalism at the level we need it is absurd. And it is not just unrealistic; it is dangerous because it slows us down. It causes us to keep waiting for this fantastical result. It’s almost as bad as waiting for the market to fix it, right? To say, “Let’s wait for some noble individual, or noble group of individuals, to come solve our problems” is not a citizen-based response! A citizen-based response says, “No, we control our government. The government has immense resources. It just bailed out Wall Street. It just bailed out the auto industry in numbers far higher than anything we’re talking about for saving journalism.”
Matthew Rothschild: But you don’t want it to bail out The New York Times or The Boston Globe?
Robert McChesney: No, not that at all. In this country, people would never say, “Hey, let’s hope that Warren Buffett will bankroll our national defense, our police departments.” People understand that this is something you have to have done, regardless of the cost. You do it first, and then you take care of the cost later. That’s how journalism is. It’s not something you do on the cheap. If you do, you don’t have a free society.
Matthew Rothschild: And this idea that newspapers should just go nonprofit? The New York Times should go nonprofit and beg people for money, like I do at The Progressive.
John Nichols: Or like NPR does.
Robert McChesney: Again, it gets to the public good nature. That’s a fine source of revenues, but it’s not going to cover the job. From all the evidence we see, it’s going to require a public subsidy to have journalism. The marketplace will not generate it. And there is not enough money in the donor camp to do so.
Matthew Rothschild: So let’s talk about this public subsidy idea. But before we get into specifics, let’s try to clear the threshold criticism that you’re getting the government involved in the media and that’s breaching the First Amendment.
John Nichols: Well, let me offer you, as a First Amendment absolutist, someone who is really passionate about it, a couple of answers. First off, we have heavily subsidized media in much of the world. And most studies would tell you that countries with the most heavily subsidized journalism—in Scandinavia, or Britain with the BBC—are very free societies. Scandinavian societies especially rank as freer than the United States. They have a broader, better public discourse than the United States. So that’s your first model. But also, the second thing is, you say, “If the government gets involved, somehow it’s going to taint it, somehow it’s going to destroy it.” Well, look: The government, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, is very involved in making religion function in the United States. You can deduct your contributions to churches. They don’t pay taxes. And somehow in this country we have an incredibly diverse religious community, including folks who are very, very critical of the government. So this notion that the government getting engaged in setting up a landscape in which people can really practice journalism from a lot of different perspectives in a lot of different ways will somehow taint it or undermine it is disproven both in clear press models international and also domestically.
Matthew Rothschild: I want to bounce this over to Bob McChesney, because all your scholarship, Bob, has been based on the assumption, that you’ve proven over and over again, that the government has always been involved in the media to one extent or another.
Robert McChesney: You look at our news media over the last 30 years. Our television broadcasters exist, and our cable broadcasters exist, because of government monopoly licenses they received usually behind closed doors for free that are worth an enormous amount of money. So they’re really not independent media.
John and I share the concern of government censorship as much as anyone. We probably would be the first to be censored. But it’s ironic that people who are so concerned about this issue, which is a very legitimate issue, see nothing wrong with the fact that our television broadcasters who depend on the government for all sorts of benefits were basically printing government positions on the Gulf War and the Iraq War. Now suddenly there is a concern when we might do it out in the open, and set up independent news media that would be clear, visible, transparent, that their operations would be independent of any government control. Commercial media and private media prosper in Europe as a result of these subsidies. They’re not threatened. In fact, Freedom House—this very pro-commercial, pro-private media organization, which rates press freedom every year around the world—puts the most heavily subsidized democracies in the world in the top six positions of having the most free private press. The United States ranks tied for twenty-first. So the evidence shows that the increase in public subsidies in Europe results in a feistier press, a more robust press, a stronger press, not a weaker, complacent press. That’s why we get without press subsidies: We have journalists who are dependent on the government for handouts.
Matthew Rothschild: Let’s get specific on the kind of subsidies you’re talking about. Some are in the initial stage, “to stop the bleeding,” as you call it, and what would that be?
Robert McChesney: Immediately what we have to do is put a lot more money into public and community radio and television. And specifically with a mandate to increase journalism particularly at the local level, where we have town after town with virtually no journalists and we have out of work journalists, and we have institutions in place ready to go.
Secondly, we’re losing a generation of young people who not only consume journalism but produce it. We’ve got to use the AmeriCorps program to bankroll hundreds of thousands of kids who want to become journalists to go out and work in the media and get experience, sort of like the WPA in the 1930s. I teach journalism. We’ve lost a generation of kids and they’re not necessarily coming back. We can’t afford to lose young people. This is a crisis. I don’t want to dwell on this, but I’ve got young people who don’t know anything about the world because they haven’t been exposed to journalism.
John Nichols: And let me offer just one, quick easy one that goes back to the founding of the Republic: The postal structure in this country makes it very, very hard for small journals of opinion to circulate.
Matthew Rothschild: Tell me about it!
John Nichols: You know it. We know it at The Nation. Let’s intervene there. Let’s make it cheap and easy for people to circulate a journal of opinion. But let’s also do something else. Let’s borrow an idea from Scandinavia. We want to give citizens some power in deciding what media should exist out there. So why shouldn’t you be able to subscribe to two or three newspapers and three or four magazines, and take that off your taxes. Now that’s going to take some money out of the government’s treasury that it would have gotten. But there you have citizens picking the media they want to support, donating money to it, maybe donating to The Progressive, donating to a radio station, donating to a website and at a very low cost actually sustaining a lot of media with the government just in there just to do the tax structure.
Matthew Rothschild: A lot of these ideas are great, but almost all of them collide with the power structure in this country. These huge corporations and all their lobbyists: We’ve seen what they’ve done to health care reform; we’ve seen what they’ve done across the board. How do you expect to make these changes when you have these behemoths out there?
John Nichols: Not to rely on Noam Chomsky too much, but Chomsky always says you advance good public policy often when the elites divide. Today, we do have divided elites on some of these issues. Some of the biggest Internet players are worried about the loss of content. So there are openings here. But the real bottom line, as Bob and I have said for years, is we’ve got to counter organized money with organized people.
Robert McChesney: Also we’re in a deep crisis. These are not normal times. We’re in a period where journalism is disintegrating. It’s a moment where people are looking for real solutions. I think the reason our book will be successful is that all the other stuff being bandied about is preposterous on the surface. This is a difficult road to go down, but it’s the only road that’s going to pay off.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine. This is an edited transcript of the interview he did with McChesney and Nichols on January 13 for his syndicated radio program, Progressive Radio. You can listen to it here.
McChesney is on the editorial advisory board of The Progressive, and Nichols is a contributing writer for The Progressive.
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