Monday, October 19, 2009

No Subsidy For New News Reporting

Today's Washington Post devotes a large story and a central op-ed piece to a proposal to have the federal government, via the FCC, subsidize a "new model for news reporting."

Sorry, bad idea. Really bad idea.

The reason the Post is giving so much press to this is that former Post Executive Editor Len Downie is one of the figures behind the effort.

Downie argues that the type of journalism that "holds accountable those with power and influence" is now "at risk" due to the decline of the profitable daily newspaper. Accordingly, "American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting--as society has, at much greater expense, for public education, health care, scientific advancement, and cultural preservation, through varying combinations of philanthropy, subsidy and government policy."

One problem with the argument is that the news industry is already re-inventing itself quite nicely WITHOUT any government subsidy. That's the word from a report authored by Downie and other journalism professors, and featured in the Post's news story today.

Another problem is that the report in any event appears to focus primarily on print media. It is certainly true that traditional print media is in big trouble financially. But the news media in the U.S. is a little bigger than traditional daily newspapers. It includes television and the internet, which have steadily supplanted newspapers and magazines as the primary sources of Americans' "news."

If anything, it appears we are suffering not from too little news, but too much. Just witness how a family in Colorado allegedly manipulated and duped the entire nation's media over the "balloon boy" incident last week. (Even if the story wasn't a hoax, it wasn't really a story in the end.)

We think there's a vital role for newspapers to play, and Downie and company outline a number of steps that would be useful in supporting that role, including encouraging more non-profit news organizations and supporting print media via philanthropies and universities.

What we don't agree with, however, are two proposals. One is to "reform" public radio and television to be more oriented to local news. Why do we need that? In Washington, we have four private local news stations on the air, some of which have several hours per day of "local" "news" (mostly puff pieces). We also have a cable oriented 24-hour per day local news station, along with local cable weather. We're saturated with local "news" already, much of it irrelevant. Why should taxpayers pay for a "public" incarnation of the same?

A better "reform" of public radio and television would be to finish the conversion of them to what they primarily are now: non-profit organizations, relying on viewer/listener contributions to support themselves. There's no need for a continued government subsidy. Indeed, many programs on public radio and television could easily support themselves on advertising, probably using no more air time than they do now for their periodic fund appeals.

The other proposal, which is far worse, is creation of a "national fund for Local News" from "fees the Federal Communications Commission collects from or could impose on telecom users, broadcast licensees or Internet service providers." The resulting fund would issue grants to "local new organizations for innovations in local news reporting and ways to support it."

This, of course, would be a terrific source of funds for journalism professors such as Downie, but other than that it's hard to see any benefit. Local print media can and will re-invent itself--indeed is re-inventing itself now--without such a fund.

More importantly, we're wary of getting the government involved in the news gathering business. Nothing good ever comes of that, even in the most well-intentioned democracy. As Downie points out, one of the major responsibilities of local news organizations is to hold government accountable. Hard to do when the government is holding the purse strings.

We hope that locals news does successfully re-invent itself. We think it will. Just like politics, we think all news is, fundamentally, local, and there will always be a demand for such. Just keep the government out of it. Please.

1 comment:

Summer said...

Yep, news reporting is already re-inventing itself, without government subsidies.

The "local" element adds complexity because there are fewer consumers with which to support ads. But the more-limited revenue opportunities should be made up for by lower costs: the geotagging services that Google, Flickr, and Twitter are coming out with should make it a lot easier for everyone to both create and find the local news that's relevant to them.

And how about local politics? I'm part of a project called Imagine Election that's making it easy for voters to find out about everyone on their ballot. Just type in your zip code and see who's running.

Check it out. We'd love to hear what you think. What can we improve? How does it compare to the State Board of Election's offering?