American Society Now Responsible for Saving Journalism

Creative destruction is never easy for an economy to digest, especially when the industry involved has an exceptionally loud megaphone to amplify its screaming. In a report released on Monday, former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. (with co-author Michael Schudson) insists that Americans take “collective responsibility” for fostering journalism and news reporting (saving unprofitable, poorly-managed news outfits). Of course, Downie doesn’t directly ask citizens for money – that would be uncouth. Instead, he suggests that universities and nonprofits, internet service providers and telecoms, and (of course) the government cough up the dough.

Downie’s idea of putting news in the hands of universities is destined to fail. Calling on universities to become news institutions is asking already-hard-up-for-cash colleges to take on a responsibility for which they have absolutely no obligation. Universities’ core function is to transform high school graduates into employable professionals or academic researchers (granted, some colleges and certain disciplines achieve this end better than others). Outside of that, many universities already support student journalism in the form of campus newspapers and radio stations. Some student journalists even go as far as to report on local and state issues. However, student reporters can only do so much, and in the wake of this year’s tuition hikes, taking on the responsibilities of failed newspapers is an expense that most public universities can’t afford.

Outrageously, Downie also wants to put telecoms on the hook for bailing out reporting, suggesting that the FCC collect fees from internet service providers to be used for a national “Fund for Local News.” He’s blind to the fact that telecoms and ISPs have done nothing but help disseminate news and information. There is more reporting, more information, more news available to us today than there ever has been in the history of civilization. It’s true that there’s a lot of garbage out there, but there’s a lot of very good online journalism as well. Nearly everything published online is subject to peer-review from a massive amount of people, and the success of sites like Wikipedia are proof that accountability, credibility, and accuracy matter just as much online as they do offline.

Downie’s most unbelievably bad idea is that the government should save journalism by fixing the tax code so that newspapers can operate as nonprofit entities. Whether the government directly bails out big newspapers or allows them nonprofit status, the result is the same: tax money doled out to one group has to be taken from another. But setting aside arguments against higher taxes, there’s an even more important question here: don’t these whining establishment journalists realize that government-supported journalism completely goes against the very idea of the 4th estate, the estate that Burke deemed “more important than them all?” The press are supposed to be the good guys, the ones keeping their eyes on the government, not the guys asking for government handouts. Only a fool would think that direct subsidies or preferential tax status won’t come with any political sanctions, explicit or implied.(And this administration isn’t above threatening legal action against companies that say things it doesn’t like).

It’s no secret that “Big Journo” can’t survive in the information age with its current business model. In his recent WaPo column, Downie proclaims that “preserving independent, original, credible reporting” is paramount to maintaining civil society. Yet his proposed methods for doing so are so far out of line with that goal that it calls his credibility into question, and instead makes him look like a shill for the big papers. CEI’s own Iain Murry explains the situation best: “American society can step in to preserve journalism by buying the papers. If they don’t, they have already said that they don’t want to preserve journalism as it stands. If a paper falls on the doorstep, and no one reads it, does it have a point?”