The Role of Government in Journalism
The feds play a part in distribution, not content.
Kicking off Day Two of the Federal Trade Commission’s recent hearings on the dismal economics of journalism last month, Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, declared that government would have to step in, “one way or the other,” to help the publishing industry survive a “market failure” that threatens independent journalism. He wasn’t specific about the nature of such aid, conceding “Congress can’t impose a solution.” But he left no doubt that he believes it’s the government’s role to spring to journalism’s defense.
This pledge appealed to some participants, like those representing public-media entities including PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Congress should adopt legislation that would provide substantial additional resources to public-service journalism,” said Mark MacCarthy, professor of communications at Georgetown University, arguing that government involvement in the arts, sciences and other fields is “traditional, mainstream and all-American.” “This is not some weird, strange aberration and alien intrusion into our life,” MacCarthy said. “This is the way we do things in this country.”
Words of Warning
For any publishers tempted by such a government rescue, I would invoke six words of warning: Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Tomlinson, Enola Gay.
These names are loaded for a reason. Mapplethorpe was a notable art photographer before he became a cause célèbre, one of several artists whose work caught the attention of conservative groups when exhibitions were funded by the National Endowment of the Arts. In the 1990s, the NEA received between $160 and $180 million to underwrite arts in the U.S., but under pressure its funding was halved in 1996 and has yet to recover. The NEA stopped funding individual artists’ work.
Ken Tomlinson was named chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by president George W. Bush in 2003 and immediately began hunting for “liberal bias” in public television, funding an investigation of Bill Moyers, and violating both CPB regulations and federal law by raising money to underwrite a program run by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal.
The Smithsonian’s abortive effort to mount an exhibit around the WWII bomber plane Enola Gay was attacked by the Pentagon, veterans groups and members of Congress. This ended the tenure of the secretary and the curator of the Air and Space Museum, leaving the institution’s credibility in tatters. The new secretary was forced to cancel the exhibit to keep funding intact. It’s unclear what was foregone later to avoid political fallout.
All support comes with strings attached, of course. Corporate ownership of publishing can be chilling, and even philanthropists have friends in high places. By comparison with government support, though, such pressures are benign. Even the effects of advertising on journalism are mild in contrast, since the sources of revenue are multilateral.
Dual Revenue Stream Model Not Broken
Turns out, the dual-revenue stream model for newspapers and magazines is about as ideal as a business model can be, at least for independent journalism.
And that model still works. It has a bright future in the world of digital broadband to which magazines—at long last—are migrating. As the new generation of tablets and their descendents change the Internet from a “lean-forward,” desktop information utility to a “lean-back” immersion experience, all the video and rich media advertising that has been on the sidelines for lack of a proper home will find its way to those places where consumers will pay to be—and the best kind of public support, the kind that independent journalism can really rely on, is circulation revenue.
Will people pay for journalism? Of course they will. It is hard to imagine why this question persists. When have people failed to pay for what they want and need?
Government has a role here, but it’s about the distribution channel, not the content. Broadband penetration brings the digital divide issue into sharp relief. Where government funding is needed—indeed, critical—is to ensure universal high-speed access to the Internet and the broad availability, especially of broadband learning devices in schools. Until government can be trusted to take over the role of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable—and the health-care debate hardly suggests that moment has come—journalism should continue to make its own way.
Jim Gaines is the editor-in-chief of multimedia magazine FLYPmedia. Gaines formerly served as managing editor at People, Time and Life magazines and as the corporate editor of Time Inc.