We will give you the good news first: The politicians and regulators who have it in their power to do something about the decline of American journalism are finally paying attention.
Now for the bad news: The way the challenges facing journalism are being discussed will make it tough for even the most sincere policymakers to offer a viable answer to it.
The FTC’s conference is titled “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” FCC chair Julius Genachowski explains the crisis as the result of “game-changing new technologies.” The assumption is clear: It’s the Internet that’s the problem. But just as MTV’s debut pronouncement that “Video Killed the Radio Star” proved to be dramatically overstated, so is the notion that journalism’s disintegration can be attributed to a brand-new digital revolution or even an old-fashioned economic meltdown.
Don’t get us wrong. The Internet has shaken up the commercial model of journalism. People don’t pay for what they can get free online. Advertisers that subsidized journalism for more than a century now bypass news media to reach consumers directly. But the primary impact of the Internet has been to accelerate and make irreversible a process that began before the digital age.
Policymakers need to take a page from American history. The framers understood that the government must not simply assure that a free and independent press may exist; it must set policies and expend resources with an eye toward guaranteeing that an independent free press will exist. No one in the first generations of the republic thought the market would suffice; as a result, the American independent press was built on extraordinary and massive postal and printing subsidies that lasted well into the 19th century. Similar subsidies could foster the vibrant independent journalism of the 21st century.
Today, as in the early republic, our system of government cannot succeed and our individual freedoms cannot survive without an informed, participating citizenry, and that requires competitive, independent news media. For that to happen, however, the FTC, the FCC and Congress must stop blaming the Internet and start thinking about how enlightened subsidies could revitalize the very necessary public good that is journalism.
– John Nichols is and Robert McChesney are the founders of Free Press, the media reform network.
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