Journalism Policy in the Spotlight

Free Press created SaveTheNews.org to argue for the importance of public policy in discussions about the future of journalism. Last week, however, policy took center stage with three articles examining our government’s possible role in fostering a robust and diverse free press in America. The articles came from an array of sources – a scholar, a journalist and a pair of advocates – and appeared in newspapers across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Seattle.

Two weeks ago, Politico reported that the Washington Post was planning to hold industry-sponsored salons designed to give lobbyists direct and “unconfrontational” access to the Post’s reporters and editors, as well as to members of Congress and the Obama administration. The revelation was followed by an outpouring of criticism and a swift reversal by the Washington Post, which promptly canceled the events. The paper’s cancellation and letter of apology to its readers have done nothing to quell the buzz on blogs and Twitter about the paper’s motivations.

One of the best analyses came from the Washington Post’s economic policy blogger Ezra Klein, who cited the Post’s failed experiment as evidence that we need to reexamine the relationship between government and news outlets. “Moral of the day,” writes Klein, “Selling access to government officials who are willing to contribute their time and power to the media’s cause is a bad revenue model for newspapers. Another way of saying that is that newspapers should not be funded by indirect government subsidies. But the whole brouhaha confirms my long-held belief that newspapers should be funded by direct government subsidies.”

Klein’s argument in a nutshell is that the advertising model, in which outside interests pay for access (to readers, to reporters, to government officials, etc.), is fundamentally broken. He says, “Cross-subsidization from advertising and classifieds worked so long as they worked. Those days are over.”

News is not a commodity

Klein continues: “The news, after all, is not a market good. Among other things, it is not profitable to sell it. But we think society needs it. Thankfully, society has developed models for funding things we deem important but don’t entirely trust to the private market. We have public universities and public centers for disease research and public firefighting departments and a public military and public roads. Why should news be different?”

While Klein looks to models such as NPR and the BBC as examples of how an independent, adversarial, publicly funded press can function, James Hamilton of Duke University is interested in a new model called L3Cs, or Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporations.

Hamilton describes L3Cs as “companies with low profits but high positive spillovers on their communities.” A time-tested business model, L3Cs are organized and operated primarily to serve a charitable purpose, with profit a secondary concern. Adopting the L3C model would help to free newspapers from market pressures. L3Cs allow for a diversity of funding streams, and they permit foundations and socially conscious investors to invest in papers’ public mission instead of in ad space.

“If a metro newspaper were run as a L3C, the presence of investors who focused on the quality of public affairs coverage would help managers make the case for watchdog stories,” Hamilton explains. “And if the L3C ended up doing well and doing good at the same time, the taxes on any profits would be paid as they were distributed among the investors.”

Federal legislation and changes to the tax code are necessary for newspapers to restructure as L3Cs. Draft legislation was introduced in the last session of Congress, but has yet to be introduced in the current session. Free Press discusses L3Cs and other nonprofit, low-profit and cooperative models for news in our report, Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy.

Journalism as a public good

In a July 5 Seattle Times op-ed titled “Saving America’s Democracy-Sustaining Journalism,” Free Press staffers Victor Pickard and Joe Torres argue that journalism is an essential public service and critical infrastructure for our nation.

As with other public services like electricity and clean water, we need public support for a new system of journalism that reinvigorates investigative and beat reporting, holds our leaders accountable, and is accessible to all. To get there, we will undoubtedly need to employ a range of strategies, including the two described by Klein and Hamilton.

The government will have to play a vital role in this effort as we make the shift from print to digital, from market product to public service, from an exclusive broadcast model to a distributed network model. Pickard and Torres outline how this critical juncture can open up new opportunities for the public not only to be involved in journalism, but also in the policy debates that will reshape journalism.

“During this transitional moment,” they write, “there’s much that needs to happen to rescue failing news operations while supporting the creation of new ones. First, we must rescue good assets from bad owners. Journalism is too precious to leave its future in the hands of absentee corporate owners.” As we shore up the short term crisis, we need to set our perspective on longer term answers including the creation of a journalism jobs program that supports investigative reporting, research-and-development efforts for experimentation with innovative journalism models, and a new public-media system that transforms public broadcasting into a world-class noncommercial news operation.”

Pickard and Torres emphasize the uniqueness of the opportunity before us, the chance for citizens and communities to re-imagine and advocate for the future of journalism right now. “Building a new media system will require broad engagement from journalists, academics, philanthropists, activists, policymakers, media owners and — most important — the public. We must be proactive through public policy and public engagement to advocate for an inclusive media system. For too long, journalism has marginalized communities of color, women and other disenfranchised groups. The depth of this crisis calls for something more than window dressing or incremental reforms,” they wrote.

For more on how you can get involved, join our campaign here at SaveTheNews.org.

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