An American Hybrid Journalism

*Note: This is a longer version of the post that originally appeared over at SaveTheNews.org.

Last week, Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Journalism Needs Government Help.” As Bollinger argues, evidence is mounting that there simply is not enough private capital from traditional revenue sources such as advertising, subscriptions and philanthropy to pay for the full extent of quality journalism our communities need. Slowly but surely, people are conceding that there is a role for carefully crafted public policy that will foster a new age of innovative, diverse, local and hard-hitting reporting.

Critics paint opinions like Bollinger’s as advocating for another “government hand out” or “giving up on the free market.” Nowhere in Bollinger’s essay, or in reports from the Knight Commission, USC Annenberg School of Journalism, Columbia University, the FTC, and the FCC, does anyone argue for replacing the commercial media sector with a government-funded monolith.

The future of news and journalism is diverse and multifaceted. I serve on the advisory broad of both a commercial news start up and advise a number of non-commercial news projects. In the past, I have praised lauded the Knight News Challenge for providing seed funding for both commercial and non-commercial journalism organizations. I am eager to find new business models, and have deep respect for the work of places like CU Boulder, and USC Annenberg and the Media Consortium, all of which are combining entrepreneurs, programmers, and journalist to develop new projects and programs.

There are a lot of people working on those issues, but there are too few focused on strengthening our current public media system and reimagining an even more robust non-commercial journalism sector in America. And those who do advocate for a stronger non-commercial media sector are often attacked and their idea mischaracterized.

Our nation needs both strong commercial media and strong public media, and those two sectors ought to to be working together through creative collaborations. Advocating for one is not a dismissal of the other. Indeed, Bollinger spells this out expertly. “American journalism is not just the product of the free market, but of a hybrid system of private enterprise and public support,” he writes. “We should think about American journalism as a mixed system, where the mission is to get the balance right.”

This is not about asking the government for a hand out or giving up on the marketplace; it is acknowledging that American media has always had both commercial and non-commercial media. For too long, we have neglected the role of the latter and put all our emphasis on the former. As our commercial media sector struggles with the economic realities of the day, and many “news” outlets give up on hard-hitting journalism, public media and nonprofits are rising to fill in the void. There is room for both. Indeed, there is need for both.

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3 comments

  1. You are feeding a red herring to a red herring. Show me the link to anyone who said that these parties were suggesting that commercial media media would be *replaced* by “a government-funded monolith.” Really, please show me the link. You are shooting at phantoms of your own imagining.

    For that matter, please link us to all the people who are “slowly but surely … are conceding that there is a role for carefully crafted public policy that will foster a new age of innovative, diverse, local and hard-hitting reporting.” It would be a service to catalogue them.

    And please do link to the mischaracterizations you allege. That, too, would be helpful.

    Not asking for a hand-out or bail-out? How is it not?

    1. The government has always played a roll in both funding and promoting the growth through innovative policy of the media. Indeed, the media system you see today was largely supported by the government in its infancy. Whether it was the newspaper subsidies through the post office, the political press, or the funding of media through public notices, the government has always had its money and its hand in journalism.

      Before I go further, let’s find common ground. I think we can agree that democracy depends on an active and antagonistic press that polices the government. Indeed, the history of American journalism is a rich one, spanning hundreds of years.

      The problem for commercial news outlets is that news in the 21st century is ubiquitous. It is repurposed and repackaged, linked and tweeted, and given away for free. This reduces the commercial value of journalism, while the inherent societal value remains. Simply, journalism’s economic value is relatively little, while its social value is immense.

      As such commercial media can’t fund all of the quality journalism democracy needs to survive. We’ve already seen newsrooms shed almost all investigative reporting, and some estimate the loss in annual reporting is upwards of $1.6 billion.

      As such, we must look to other ways to sustain journalism and in effect sustain democracy. This is not to say we should give up on commercial journalism, but rather that we should look towards new ways to compliment commercial journalism.

      The United States spends about $1.43 per citizen on funding for public media. In comparison, the UK spends almost $100 per citizen. In spite of United States’ tiny amount of funding for public media, public media still manages to create hard-hitting enterprise journalism. PBS was recently tapped for 37 Emmy nominations for, among others, investigative reporting–more than any other news outlet. This isn’t a reason to say “Well, it looks like they’re doing alright with their current funding,” but rather “Wow, think what they could do with a little more funding.”

      I think it is worth asking, “What is quality media worth to the United States?” We can listen to Glenn Beck and Keith Olberman squabble (thanks commercial media), or we can fund a public media that is the public’s media in the truest sense of the word.

      While I appreciate your concern about potential government abuses, on closer analysis, it is simply not founded. Trust in public media far out paces trust in commercial media. Additionally, studies have shown that while the commercial media were covering the run up to the Iraq War like it was a Hollywood movie, public media-government funded media-were raising critical questions that the mainstream media never did and in providing information debunking myths like WMDs,a link between Iraq and al Qaeda, and the supposed international support for the war. It is exactly this type of critical media we must preserve.

      Read More: http://bit.ly/bm378z

    2. Hi Jeff,

      Let me start off by admitting – or perhaps asserting – that both of our positions are more complex than has been made out to be, and to characterize it as simple a red herring is unfair. The irony here Jeff is that I tend to agree with you on most things, and am interested in finding ways of fostering policies that “align with journalism’s disrupters” and spur innovation. My daily work is focused on reshaping policymaking so it better serves and responds to “the perspective of the people it is supposed to represent.”

      This post was based on my frustration of wanting to have a real discussion and debate about these issues and instead seeing the debate framed in term of “Massive Taxpayer-Funded Propaganda Machine” (http://bit.ly/9kG0Vo) or a “blueprint for a press takeover” (http://bit.ly/9MpMMW) or “madness… that government funding is the solution to the economic challenges facing newspapers.” (http://bit.ly/bMUjy9) or your own characterization of staff and faculty at Columbia being “obsessed” with “handing over portions of our press.” I just think these debates too quickly dissolve into “all or nothing” when it’s all so much more complex than that.

      In regards to the growing opinion that government has a role to play I think it has been evident in the reports I list in the post above (all with links) as well as at the FTC and FCC proceedings (for example: http://bit.ly/bMUmFY). However, those reports and proceedings are all “experts.” I have seen an outpouring of support for careful government intervention at journalism community forums around the country, where local citizens are voicing their support for expanded public media and nonprofit journalism (for example: http://bit.ly/c6BpYs or here http://bit.ly/dCkEob). To be clear, people are concerned about government involvement – and we all should be – but they are also open to innovating around what is already working and supporting experimentation with new models.

      In terms of mischaracterization: In your post you describe Bollinger as advocating “handing over portions of the press to government subsidy, giving up on the free market” and say that he assumes “that the business model of journalism is hopeless.” I think that’s an intentional mischaracterization. Bollinger did not talk about “handing over” anything that is not already supported by tax-payers. I think Bollinger argues that some part of the journalism system may not be able to be supported by ads and subscriptions (or even foundations). That’s not giving up on the free market for some kinds of news and that is not talking about all business models.

      I am most interested in discussions that honestly account for the full extent of journalism’s past and are open to the full range of possibilities for journalism’s future. The government has a role to play – they always have and always will – I just want to make sure that role protects the first amendment, produces quality coverage, provides adversarial perspectives, promote public engagement, and prioritizes innovation.

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