Almost every day comes news about a newspaper slashing its staff, filing for bankruptcy or closing its doors. Are we hearing the death knell for newspapers? What might that mean for journalism, and for democracy? Robert McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of communication at the University of Illinois. His numerous books deal with the history and economics of journalism and the media, and media reform. He is a co-author, with John Nichols, of the upcoming book "Saving Journalism: The Soul of Democracy" and of a recent article, "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers," in The Nation magazine. McChesney was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
There appear to be more news alternatives than ever before, in large part thanks to the Internet. Why should we care if newspapers disappear?
We care about newspapers not because we care about ink and paper and printing presses. We care about them because they're newsrooms. And with the collapse of journalism over commercial radio and commercial television, they're really the only game in town that's paying journalists to cover their communities. When we lose newspapers, we lose newsrooms. While the plethora of voices on the Internet is exciting and potentially a crucial part of an invigorated and democratic journalism, in and of itself it is insufficient. Many bloggers need journalists so they know what to blog about. What we desperately need in order to have a quality, democratic journalism is people to do it full time, who have some experience, who are responsible for covering beats, have to answer for what they do, ideally in competition with some other journalists. And that costs money. You don't get that through volunteer labor, you don't get that through someone blogging in their spare time. In the last year, roughly 15,000 to 18,000 working journalists lost their jobs. We're down to about 50,000 as of early this year. And based on what we've seen so far this year, we will probably lose as many in 2009, if not more. At that rate we're not going to have very many paid journalists left within two years. The difference from two or three decades ago is enormous. And this is simply untenable.
You suggest that journalism needs an immediate economic stimulus from the government, at the same time government is trying to save banks and the auto industry. Why shouldn't we just let the old media die and let the free market determine what follows?
For one thing, there's no free market in media. All the media firms, historically to the present day, have been the recipients of enormous direct and indirect government subsidies and monopoly licenses.
Government policies create the media system. The question is what sort of policies are we going to have, what sort of media system are we going to have. Second, the founding fathers never intended that the media system should be determined by the marketplace. Jefferson, Madison, all the founding fathers and subsequent generations didn't think that you only had journalism if rich people could make money doing it. They didn't think that way. They understood that the first duty of our Constitution was for the state to make sure we had a viable press system, for the sake of self-government. As a result of that, the founders implemented extraordinary, massive subsidies to spawn a vibrant print media - postal subsidies, printing subsidies, paying newspapers to publish government notices - because they understood that it shouldn't be understood as a market, it should be understood as a public good. The idea that it should be left to rich people and if they can make money off of it, we get democracy, and if they can't, we're just plumb out of luck - let's find a king and call it a day - that's simply ridiculous. We have to recalibrate the way we think about it.
What do you propose?
We need to eventually come up with long-term policies to create independent, autonomous and competing newsrooms in communities, whether they're commercially owned, staff-owned, municipally owned, nonprofits. That future notwithstanding, we've got an immediate crisis. The house is burning down. So we need immediate steps to keep what we have in place and to put out the fire, so we can buy some time to map out a future where we're going to have largely a digital journalism, digital newsrooms. Our proposals, which we think of as a free-press infrastructure project, would run for three years, after which they would be re-evaluated. One principle behind all our proposals is that subsidies be content- and viewpoint-neutral. These are not subsidies that allow anyone in government to walk into a newsroom and tell someone what to do.
What are the specifics?
First, we recommend a postal subsidy that provides free postage for every publication that has less than 20 percent of its pages in advertising. That will keep a lot of struggling magazines open. Second, let anyone who buys a newspaper subscription, for up to $200 a year, deduct that from their taxes. That means you could basically get a free subscription to your daily newspaper. and it is your choice. Unlike a bailout, this forces companies to woo readers still and serve them, and it keeps those newsrooms alive. Third, we have to have a serious program to make sure that every middle school, high school and college has a viable school newspaper and radio station, and we have to get young people not only reading the news, but also producing it, and becoming active participants and appreciating journalism. And fourth, we've got to dramatically increase our spending on public and community broadcasting. We spend anywhere from one-fifteenth to one-seventy-fifth of what other democracies spend on public media. We could get away with it when the corporations were dominating our news media and filling it up. But now that they're jumping ship, we have to do like other democracies and support a vibrant community and public media. Finally, the condition for all of these subsidies, which we estimate at $20 billion a year, is that whatever is produced goes online for free and becomes part of the public domain. What we're doing is not bankrolling old media, but bankrolling the production of a really rich vein of material online, accessible to everyone in the world at no charge. It is all about adapting to the future, not clinging to the past. This gives us three years to really work out a long-term plan, but to spawn a vibrant journalism in the meantime.