The Case For Publicly Funded Journalism (2010)

(The following essay originally appeared in The TReehouse Magazine in December 2010. It has been lightly edited to fit the format here, but not for content. – JHD)

But one thing that will never change is the need to report the news as it happens, wherever it happens … this is what will help us meet the challenges of our time.

President Obama, 2009, as quoted in the Broadcasting Board of Governors FY2011 Congressional Budget Submission seeking $769 million to disseminate news and information reporting abroad. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting anticipates $430 million in FY2011 funding from Congress to serve domestic audiences.

NORFOLK, Va. — The Rough Rider in some ways was like The Cranston Herald, a community weekly in Rhode Island that published my first newspaper byline, and The Virginian-Pilot, the Virginia metro paper that published what likely was my last.

The small, award-winning daily intimately knew and aggressively explored its market. We carried stories by The Associated Press to give our audience views of the world we could not report. The Rough Rider was – and still is – published aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).

We weren’t The New York Times, but we were damned good for what we were.

What we were was on the taxpayer’s dime.

I thought of the shipboard paper after my former colleague Kerry Dougherty recently wrote a blog post for The Pilot. It spoke to concerns about government involvement in arenas many people believe are best left to private individuals, in theory, or, more often in practice, corporations. Dougherty wrote:

We don’t have – and wouldn’t want – publicly subsidized newspapers. Why radio and television?

TReehouse editor Tom Robotham, writing separately for Veer and this website, will discuss “why radio and television.” I’ll briefly discuss public broadcasting, but it has a broader mission than my concern – government subsidies for public-interest newsgathering.

Some critics of subsidies believe proponents are trying to save newspapers. They’re missing the point. We need to preserve the newsgathering capability that traditionally has belonged to newspapers. Whether news is delivered via newsprint is a secondary matter.

This year, Patrick Verel of Fordham University wrote about a presentation by Dr. Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again. The talk was not so hopeful: 1,000 newspaper journalists laid off each month, 140 newspapers folding in 2009, a 4-to-1 ratio of PR flaks to journalists.

They also noted a Pew Research Center study that suggested one troubling side effect of layoffs. The reporters left standing in American newsrooms have a greater reliance on official sources. Nichols, an associate editor for a Wisconsin daily, said:

News is literally being rolled over by propaganda.

McChesney and Nichols discuss potential subsidies, such as extending the AmeriCorps program to journalism students and funding grassroots journalists who cover their communities. These may not be the best options, but these are not crazy ideas. Targeted subsidies I have thought about might support specific types of news, such as a dedicated campaign finance reporter. Or subsidize a public interest investigative position at a local website.

Private enterprise generally, but not always, has done journalism in the U.S. – just as private media firms generally, but not always, have sought to act in accordance with their respective understanding of the public interest.

The notion that we don’t have publicly funded or subsidized newspapers is a common perception, but it is not accurate. Our government funds independent newsgathering in the U.S. and abroad, and it is not just through the domestic public broadcasting most of us know.

An example of this work is an editorially independent newspaper for the armed forces that has a greater tradition of journalism and a far wider audience than the small, command-approved newspaper I worked for when I served as an enlisted sailor in the Navy.

Stars and Stripes is the only “authorized” DoD news outlet “guaranteed First Amendment privileges that are subject to Congressional oversight,” according to its site. It is mostly distributed overseas for military personnel, their families and contractors. Stars and Stripes delivers millions of copies each year in Europe and the Pacific. You can get in the U.S., too, via the website or, a bit randomly, as a supplement to The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

The purpose has been to provide independent – not public relations-driven – news to our troops abroad. How good are they? Last year, a Stars and Stripes reporter was barred from covering one unit in Iraq for being what some Army officers considered too negative.

Stars and Stripes sells ads, but it is subsidized by DoD, too. According to a Forbes article last year, a third of the paper’s $50 million budget is from public money. Funding to the Stars and Stripes program includes roughly $10 million tied to the Afghanistan and Iraq efforts, according to a defense budget report from this year.

Other military-subsidized publications have a rhetorical purpose that should represent goals of their command or the chain-of-command. They also provide consumers, including some members of the general public, with a form of news coverage that has a real value.

Directly and indirectly, the government subsidizes or funds base and command newspapers and many forms of multimedia programming around the world.

One of the best military papers I know of is The Flagship, produced by Commander, Navy Mid-Atlantic.

If anyone at The Pilot would like to see the offspring a public-private marriage, they might look no further than the side lobby of their office in Norfolk. The Flagship usually is on the racks, since it is produced by the Virginian-Pilot Media Companies.

Similar arrangements produce base or command newspapers at Langley, Oceana, and other local military spots. The government produces or approves public affairs content that is published and disseminated by the corporation. A Pilot-related entity makes a presumed profit by selling advertising. I’m told it is not correct to call such publications publicly funded or subsidized, but there is at least an indirect public cost.

Though The Flagship clearly is for a Navy audience, part of its 40,000 weekly circulation is distributed off base. It is one of the largest circulation newspapers in Hampton Roads, behind only our two major dailies, The Pilot and The Daily Press.

It does not bother me that a business interest connected to The Pilot engages in a revenue-producing activity with the same federal government agencies The Pilot covers. I realize it may bother some people. For the purposes of full disclosure, I work with the Navy.

Potential ethical conflicts exist. That does not make them actual conflicts. I’ve seen no suggestion that business relationships with government agencies do harm to The Pilot’s excellent reportorial work. Generally, these business relationships, in which The Pilot provides a service as would any government vendor, resemble those with other companies.

I’m not suggesting we should allow government PR teams to “cover” the news. The Flagship, for all it value, is not an independent newsgathering organization.

But Stars and Stripes is.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission staff issued a “discussion draft” report on potential government policies that might aid news organizations. It considered many of the challenges facing traditional media, particularly newspapers facing what some call online competition, a misleading term.

News aggregators sort and repackage news content reported by others, including newspapers with online operations. Some provide a valuable service. Others are thieves. As I have written here before, outlets that reproduce the work of others without payment are “replacing” traditional media though they lack the ability to gather news.

The FTC also noted that there are precedents for public subsidization of private journalism. Corporate newsgathering interests have benefited from postal breaks, tax breaks that save the industry hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and policies that require adverting items of public interest. The FTC did not mention this, but media perks – parking spaces at Norfolk City Hall, for example – are a kind of media subsidy.

There are various kinds of subsidies under discussion – vouchers to direct funds to a news organization, tax credits tied to number of reporters employed, higher postal subsidies, etc.

The obvious poster children for subsidization of news are Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, the affiliates of which largely depend upon donations from the general public. This year, the U.S. invested $420 million in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees both operations, according to a CPB financial report.

According to the CPB website, $60 million in grants went to Virginia outlets in 2009, largely for television programming. In Norfolk, WHRO got $1.2 million, WHRV-FM $285,049, and WNSB-FM $111,293. These are not massive sums.

As a consumer – primarily of public radio – I know this money pays for notable journalism and public affairs programming. I also know this is hardly the sum total subsidy of newsgathering by the federal government, as some erroneously believe.

We spend far more to deliver news to foreigners.

I recently went online and checked out a news source that isn’t really supposed to go directly to U.S. citizens. This “trusted source of news and information since 1942” discussed potential Republican gains in the midterm elections, President Obama on The Daily Show, and efforts to mobilize Muslim American voters. Voice of America reaches an estimated 175 million people around the world each week. VOA notes:

Our programs are intended for overseas audiences, as is our website.

But if you can Google, you’re in.

VOA’s charter says reporting is to be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” and “present responsible discussions and opinions on (American) policies.” VOA will cost about $206.8 million to produce next year, according to a budget submission by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, funded by Congress, funded by you.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose strategic plan lists “objective journalism” as its core activity, oversees several journalism and broadcasting enterprises, including Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network. Including VOA funding, its overall operations cost more than $700 million per year.

VOA and its sister outlets are rhetorical tools of American policy, but we might gently consider whether the strategy of a government is all that different, or somehow less noble, from the rhetorical goals of a corporate media organization.

There are legitimate concerns about the quality or potential corruption of state-funded or -subsidized journalism. These concerns are not all that different than those pertaining to corporations, particularly as they value profit above performance of public interest journalism. In either case, some concerns can be addressed by ensuring editorial independence and transparency.

VOA has been criticized as a propaganda tool of the U.S. Yet it also has been criticized for airing viewpoints that contrast with supposed American views.

The latter complaint notably came after it aired a controversial interview with a Taliban leader following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. VOA earned a Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism because it fought to maintain editorial independence.

Government policies and monies already aid media organizations such as The Pilot in ways both big and small. It isn’t just the federal government.

Let’s get local. State and municipal government offices regularly provide advertising revenue to media organizations. Clearly, The Pilot is providing a good or service, and should be compensated for doing so in such matters.

For example, the City of Virginia Beach used to publish a “city page” advertising supplement to deliver information to readers of The Pilot. The city paid The Pilot $166,000 in the city page’s last full year of publishing these ads, and there was a transparency to it.

The city stopped purchasing these ads due to budget constraints. (They also cut a $70,000-per-year city magazine that was not published by The Pilot.) Again, ads are not a subsidy, though I suggest this hints at a potential pitfall of subsidies in lean economic times. The Beach, like its neighbors, still does business with The Pilot to distribute public notices and legal ads. And that’s fine with me.

I have written before at TReehouse that my personal preference for the protection of local newsgathering is a non-profit model, in which newsrooms operate as charities backed by private financing. It is in practice in various ways, including by investigative groups such as the New York-based ProPublica and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity.

ProPublica’s communications director, Mike Webb, told me that, while present funding comes from foundations, ProPublica seeks to expand its donor base. In part, this is because it wants to prevent the potential for appearance that it is doing the bidding of its primary backer, the Sandler Foundation. One place ProPublica is not seeking funding is from government.

Yet several folks are considering what role various government entities could play.

Among them is the FTC, though its consideration of “the challenges of journalism in the Internet age” does not make me believe a wider debate on public funding is forthcoming, particularly given the outcome of the midterm elections. The FTC staff has performed a service by outlining in a public forum the many challenges, generally in terms of the newspapers (and online outlets, some related to print publications) that produce the most journalism.

While online-only sites have popped up, the draft report notes, these sites have small staffs and need support:

(Virtually) no sites have yet found a sustainable business model that would allow them to survive without some form of funding from non-profit sources.

Many voices are making the case that public support should be in the conversation. Some whom have raised this issue, many of them eloquently and compellingly, include Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson in “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” for at Columbia Journalism Review, as well as folks at the non-partisan, Massachusetts-based Free Press, founded by McChesney and Nichols.

My concern is local journalism. This is most at risk.

Consider the recent fine work The Pilot’s reporting staff, which has employed the Freedom of Information Act nimbly and well to reveal significant local government news the public would not have learned otherwise. We need The Pilot here – or an equivalent.

There is not a ProPublica Hampton Roads. If we had one, it would not match the day-to-day diversity of the journalism that appears in The Pilot. Our newspaper is valuable and more than worthy of my subscription. Though I hope I’m wrong – and hope to subscribe until I die – I don’t assume The Pilot will always be here in its present form.

If you’ve made it this far, you might think I’m taking Dougherty to task for one line in one blog post. Please consider it another way.

In Hampton Roads, we live in a community that has a great local newsgathering organization. In addition to providing factual news vigorously and well, The Pilot represents a diverse set of views through its opinion writers. I was fortunate to read Dougherty’s words about something she believes. This led me to think about something I believe, and, for better or worse, to write about it here for you. That’s only one of the ways The Pilot matters.

If we don’t consider various ways to protect public interest newsgathering in the U.S. for all Americans, some of us – those of us with the means to afford the technology of tomorrow – may be able to go online and click on information and disagree or agree.

Whatever information we have left may be what governments and corporations choose to release through armies of flaks.

3 thoughts on “The Case For Publicly Funded Journalism (2010)

  1. Hackman says:

    “I have written before at TReehouse that my personal preference for the protection of local newsgathering is a non-profit model, in which newsrooms operate as charities backed by private financing.” – I read this essay just now and agree with it. (Sometimes it is nice to know you are being read.)

    • Hackman, Thanks for the comment. Greatly appreciated, and it is nice to know a topic such as this one is getting some eyeballs. I’ve been thinking a lot about what news capabilities should be protected for a local newsgathering organization. Thoughts are always welcome.

  2. Hackman says:

    Well, since you asked, my feeling is this.. I’ve never worked for a major metro or even a metro but as for small and medium regional papers, there’s been a massive decline and as I see it there needs to be government supported funding or some other funding made available to keep these places in business – otherwise there isn’t going to be much of a professional newsgathering class. I will turn into unreliable blogging. Newspapers could go the way of popular fiction writing, pulp fiction, a great lost art that gasped its last in the early 1970s. But I think the end of newspapers has more dire consequences. The reporter at the little daily is often the only one paying attention in that little place or knows what is going on. It’s not that the editors are geting fired and the best reporters are leaving after a fabulous 20-year career that bothers me so much, it is the best young reporters, young editors, et cetera, are leaving these smaller places. In the past there was a national network of small good papers where a decent enough reporter could climb up the ladder, so the speak, all the while getting better and better at the craft. Now, for the most part, talented young reporters can’t move on, don’t have time to do much but churn out crap, or less time to work on things that keep them in the business, and so often get discouraged and prematurely go into PR or use their source list to bag a cushy quasi-government job. It is all very sad. Therefore, I believe, that the government should invest in keeping not only large newspapers afloat, but smaller ones that serve to train people and serve areas that otherwise have no coverage.

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