Could We Imagine Public Support for Journalism?

Friday afternoon, May 15

Host and note taker: Esther Kaplan, The Investigative Fund, The Nation Institute


Richard Tofel, ProPublica

Chancellar Williams, Open Society Foundations

Martin Reynolds, The VOICES Project, Bay Area News Group

Barbara Raab, The Ford Foundation

Partial attendance: Craig Aaron, FreePress; Linda Jue, G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism; Jennifer Preston, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation


–A variety of subsidies already exist

–Is there a constituency that could back a campaign for government support for journalism?

–Are there content-neutral forms of subsidy that would work?

–Is there a tax code-driven subsidy that would work?


–No matter what subsidy you dream up, how do you decide what organizations and individuals qualify as “journalists”?





Esther: It seems difficult to rally around public support for journalism unless we can imagine mechanisms for public support that we as journalists would be comfortable with. Something that wouldn’t leave journalism organizations as vulnerable to political pressure as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?


Dick: There are some functional models out there, beyond the CBP, such as postal rate subsidies. They have worked well because they are content neutral.


Esther: Andre Schiffrin laid out various models of public support for publishing in Europe, such as government funds to purchase copies of books published by French publishing houses. Could that be translated to journalism? For example, public libraries each getting a pot of money to spend on journalism subscriptions?




Some commented that in the U.S. we have seen tremendous changes in media policy that seemed impossible at the outset. Some then asked why the BBC was insulated from political pressures in a way that the CBP is not.


Dick: There are such profound cultural differences between the UK and the US.


Others answered that the airwaves already constitute a massive public subsidy to commercial journalism. Media ownership laws changed the way media works so that you had to be large to survive.


Dick: What if we estimated the true commercial value of the airwaves and taxed 20% of that value, and gave that money to support journalism?


Others commented that in the US, there is the illusion that the market has shaped the current state of journalism, but it’s really the policies that have created the system we have now. When questions emerged of whether people valued journalism enough to care, some of those present responded that maybe people don’t value “journalism,” but information sharing is highly valued. As examples, it was noted that there are people on the street taking a picture and drawing the media to it. People have a critique, a fair one, of how the mainstream media covers them.


Esther: So the question of a public subsidy for journalism is tied to the question of the credibility of journalism — and the democratization of journalism.


Questions emerged about whether journalists themselves would back a campaign like this given their allergy to advocacy. Campaigns like this are not easy — you need a constituency. Look at the campaign for Net Neutrality as a model?


Martin: Could you align the interests of big media organizations and journalists themselves? Could journalism associations lead the charge?


Craig: There are several pots of money that could be tapped, for example, the revenue from spectrum sales. Or we could put a tax on every cell phone. You could take a source of funds like that and create a trust with the money. You could imagine an Americorps or WPA-style program where public funds could pay for midcareer journalists to train young journalists, for example. So it is a political question of mobilizing support for it to be used in this sort of way.
Jennifer: What’s the latest analysis of community information needs? Knight did one in maybe 2008 or 2009 — is there a more recent one?


Craig (?): There was a Pew study around 2013. Jay Hamilton at Stanford has done pretty recent gap analyses, capturing where the news deserts are.