*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.