It is time now to move beyond handwringing and nostalgia over our vanished American journalism past. While market forces will sustain some forms of serious reportage, evidence is mounting that creators of journalism in the public interest can’t innovate their way out of a deepening technological crisis. From the new frontiers of digital media to the decaying world of print newspapers to the diminished aspirations of once-mighty magazines, market and economic forces continue to reduce the scale and scope of public-interest journalism.
To sustain journalism of the sort that the market barely supports today, public funding is essential.
In the U.S., nonprofits and foundations have stepped up to fill some gaps and provide short-term relief. Wealthy benefactors, while few, are leading a renaissance at the Washington Post and a smattering of other journalism organizations. Yet many informed people recognize today that no combination of commercial innovations, charity, and wealthy patrons can save quality journalism. As Nicholas Lemann wrote in early 2020, “The political implications of [the decline of journalism] are painfully obvious, in the United States and elsewhere: in journalism, the poorer, the more nativist, the angrier parts of the country … are the ones where journalism can’t deliver on its public promise because of its severe economic constraints. Journalism is a case in which it’s going to take a whole new set of arrangements, and a new way of thinking, to solve the present crisis.”1
What is to be done? The first step is to rethink the economic and financial foundations of quality journalism and to begin by accepting that neither market forces, nor charitable donations or wealthy patronage can, alone or in combination, sustain the level of intensive, thorough and responsible journalism necessary to nourish an informed citizenry in a nation as large, diverse, and complicated as the United States. The reasons why market-based innovations in journalism fail and continue to fail are complex — and deserve their own detailed explanation. Here I will only offer a simple analogy that suggests that the constitutional imperative to share vital information about public life quickly, completely, and inexpensively causes what innovators call the monetization challenge and what economists describe as the public goods problem.2
Imagine for a moment a world where pizza is free, and where the same pizza pies can be endlessly shared. Imagine further that in this world there is a legal right, and societal imperative, to share pizza widely. Now in such a world, who would invest in making pizzas, or in selling them? The short answer: no one. And in such a world, pizza would soon vanish.
Journalism faces a similar situation because vital information revealed by one journalist can be immediately copied and shared widely — by anyone, in any way. Copying and sharing the gist, or essence, of published news and analysis is constitutionally protected and legally encouraged. The practice is a civic imperative, which lubricates self-governance and democratic choices by citizens. Thus directly monetizing serious journalism is difficult if not impossible. The term of art is “fair use,” and the rational is that information relevant to making public decisions are a “public good.” Journalistic public goods are also “nonrival,” which means they can be shared without losing value or quality. One person’s consumption, in short, doesn’t prevent or reduce consumption by another. The success of the Huffington Post, for instance, at repackaging the guts of stories from The New York Times is well known — and well illustrates the problem of monetizing public goods.
Perhaps an easier way of understanding the impossibility of directly selling serious journalism to readers is to examine the “free rider” problem. Consumers of news and analysis are free riders by law and custom. They benefit from a journalistic activity whether or not they pay for it. The inability of journalists to recoup money from people who benefit from good journalism is common, embedded in the structure of journalism, and rarely if ever noted or questioned. When a local journalism organization exposes corruption at a city council, for instance, and then the revelations force the council to reform, everyone in the city benefits, not only the people who paid the journalists to produce the reporting that engendered reforms.
From a societal standpoint, that journalism is a public good and that citizens can freely “ride,” or benefit from the labors of journalists without compensating them, results from smart policies by past political leaders. The Constitution and American legal traditions support timely and inexpensive sharing of relevant information, news, and analysis.
But from the producer’s standpoint, sharing can be devastating economically. Directly recouping producer costs is difficult, if not impossible, because of the constitutional mandate to freely share vital information. And when information is shared digitally over computer networks, the marginal cost of making copies approaches zero; so sharing widely, at scale, is essentially free.3
Within media production, the public-goods problem is unique to journalism. Just as no one insists on a legal right to free pizza, no one insists on a legal right to free Showtime or HBO; or free movies or music; or reproductions of paintings or photos. Neither can anyone sell these artifacts without consent of their creators (and, usually, only after making payments). Outside of journalism, tough and longstanding protections secure the economic interests of producers because no “civic imperative” interferes with, or prevents, monetization.
Accepting Quality Journalism as a Public Good
Recognizing and accepting that quality journalism is a public good opens up new potential avenues for support because most citizens in the U.S. and around the world accept that many essential services can’t be provided by the market and thus deserve funding by government, directly or indirectly. So how Americans pay for public goods — such as schools, libraries, opera companies, and police and fire services — provides a rough map on how to preserve and sustain serious journalism.
Because of my own studies of the economic foundations of scientific, biomedical, and engineering research, I find that the best models of public funding for journalism could come from the political-economic sources of these techno-scientific fields. Research is a classic public good. Because it often doesn’t lead to immediate benefits, the creators of research usually freely share their discoveries and knowledge; they cannot begin to “capture” the full or even partial economic benefits of scientific activity. As a result, private actors greatly under-invest in science, if they invest at all, and left to the market, money for scientific research would shrivel. Economists categorize the situation as a “market failure.” Not all market failures involve public goods, but all public goods are examples of market failures, because the market — private actors pursuing profits for themselves — won’t make the necessary investments.
For science, the solution to “market failure” is well known and uncontroversial: the government fills the gap, investing taxpayer’s monies into research. In the U.S., two agencies alone, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), have a combined annual budget of more than $40 billion. Each agency, while enjoying strong bi-partisan support, essentially operates as an association or club: practitioners decide which of their peers receive funding, for how much, and to what end.
The mechanism, called “peer review,” allows scientists to judge the value of each other’s work and choose to fund projects they value. The public goes along with this system of accountability because scientists produce beneficial results over the long run and because neither politicians nor typical citizens have any the know-how or skill to decide what good science is or how to go about producing it.
“Peer review” is a robust model for funding serious journalism. The method is not perfect, and is subject to criticism and improvement. Yet despite decades of complaints about bias and inefficiency in peer review, the model has survived.4 Let’s look a bit more closely at how the model works — to gain a clearer sense of how direct government funding of independent journalism, powered by the engine of “peer review,” can work to support quality journalism at scale.
The mechanism has three pillars. First, the NIH and the NSF employ a cadre of experienced scientists and researchers, many on loan from universities but some part of the government’s civil service structure. They are usually called program managers, and they help to create “calls,” or requests for funding. So if the NIH wants to learn more about memory loss in the elderly, or the NSF wants to learn more about materials for computer switches that can work faster and use less energy than silicon, a program officer creates a panel of expert researchers who then evaluate requests for money from peers in their engineering and scientific communities.
To prevent rigidity and bias, program officers usually serve for a few years and then return to their original universities. Some come from industry. Some do multiple stints as program officers, though often separated by many years.
Government-funded researchers, meanwhile, are free to do their work in their home locations and publish their work anywhere. Since they’ve already been paid to carry out their research, they need not modify their results or findings in order to satisfy commercial interests. Having been paid once, they have a civic and legal obligation to share their knowledge widely. They can even get paid a second time for their work — for instance by publishing a book or giving a lecture for a fee — though they aren’t required to do so.
Full disclosure: I myself have received an NSF grant for field research in the East African nation of Uganda. For three years running, earlier this decade, I visited Uganda and each time interviewed dozens of computer scientists, and observed them at work. So far I’ve published two articles in peer-reviewed academic journals drawing on the research. I’ve never heard a word from the government about what I’ve written, and what I might write in future. Based on a proposal drawn from my knowledge of computer research being done in Africa, an NSF panel awarded me (and two others at ASU) ample fund for our study.
Not all market failures involve public goods, but all public goods are examples of market failures, because the market won’t make the necessary investments.
To be sure, peer review is only as strong as the panels themselves and as the language and concepts in the requests for funding. And the model is inherently conservative, biased against novelty in the manner historically documented and conceptually outlined by Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Yet whatever its shortcomings, the mechanism nicely maps onto the world of serious journalism, where beats are akin to research fields and past publications and the potential value of research aims resemble the way journalists long have obtained support: they advocate for plans and projects, and whether they get support from editors depends on what they know, the quality of their past work, and the feasibility of their future goals. Substitute editors for program managers and the process could seem seamless.
Peer review, to be sure, can fall prey to clubbiness, to peers enriching one another and ignoring outsiders. To reduce the incidence of such flaws, program officers should be diverse, representing all approaches to serious journalism, and reflecting the ethno-racial and gender diversity of our nation. But among these ills, censorship appears to be rare. Scientists and engineers are normally free of interference from politicians and citizens with a bias or grudge. Even researchers funded by the NIH or NSF who turn around and study government policies, practices and government programs, usually can do so without interference or the perception of conflicts of interests.5
Scientists, engineers, and medical researchers aren’t unique in receiving direct funding from the government without interference from the government or caving into the whims of critics. Other experts and professionals also receive public funding without interference from government because they deliver recognized public services. Doctors, for instance, are typically told what to charge by Medicare, for instance, but not how to diagnose a patient. Police officers invariably are supported by government but typically they investigate cases as their accepted standards and professional codes dictate. While government sets standards or priorities for funded activities, professionals have broad freedom to deliver services as they see fit.
Why not include journalists in the broad, diverse group of knowledge producers who adopt “peer review” as a basis for obtaining government support. And the justification won’t be charity but a recognition that journalism produces essential knowledge required for a good society and good life.
If the United States creates a National Journalism Foundation (NJF), where would the money come from, and how much would be needed?
Funding presents a tricky but solvable problem. The British impose an annual levy, or tax, on television and radio sets in every house. The system isn’t viable in the twenty-first century. Why not impose a small tax on Internet services? The additional of even fifty cents a month (or 5ayear)toeverybroadbandandsmartphonebillwouldyieldanenormoussumforseriousjournalism,probablyasmuchas500 million annually. That the Internet provides resources for the boldest initiative ever mounted in American public journalism is of course fitting. The Internet tax might be viewed as especially justified and appropriate since Web behemoths — Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple — have profited hugely from technological changes that undermined the economic basis of serious journalism in the public interest.
If such a tax proves too burdensome, another approach would be for the U.S. to establish the NJF as a public-private partnership, akin to the National Academy of Sciences or the American Red Cross. The foundation would run autonomously, attracting private donations but also receive funding from government. A hybrid approach would perhaps reinforce the “arm’s length” relationship between the press and politicians.
Yet making the National Journalism Foundation an arm of government could make the body more responsive to public needs. Funded by a federal Internet tax, the journalism foundation — like the Federal Communications Commission or Securities and Exchange Commission — would have an independent board with members appointed by President (or Congress), and a permanent core staff.
The board in turn would select a director. Or the director of an NJF could be appointed by the president, subject to the approval of the Senate, which is after all how Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members are appointed.
Naturally, over time, publicly-funded journalists, even as they successfully maintain their independence, will grow dependent on government money. There are dangers in such dependence; so the NJF would not only fund individual journalists but also fund privately-owned journalism organizations (whether for profit or non-profit). To create a level playing field, producers of news and analysis in the public interest, across the political spectrum, from the National Review to the New York Times would also be eligible to receive funds from the NJF, just as universities receive a portion of individual grants to their own researchers to go towards operating expenses for the university as a whole.
There will be growing pains. Journalism is a peculiar occupation. Because free speech is a basic American right, anyone can commit what media critic Dan Gillmor calls acts of journalism. 6 Journalists don’t get licensed by any government or civic entity, but serious journalists invariably recognize one another. Journalism is porous, unlike medicine, teaching, law, or electrical engineering — fields that through professionalization have come to have an elaborate system of gate-keepers. Journalism need not imitate academia, with its plethora of disciplines and rules, in order to warrant public funding without fear or favor. That anyone can be a journalist should not mean anything goes. Standards matter.
The work of policing also draws on people of diverse skills and identities, and few would argue that policing should be a market-based activity or that standards don’t matter. In 2020, the social-media platform, Twitter, began to label some of President Donald Trump’s tweets as misinformation, a practice that implicitly embraced the idea that Twitter is responsible for what goes out on its platform but which also ignited controversy about whether imposing editorial standards must be applied more broadly.
Public funding might also mean recourse against sub-standard performance — in short, accountability. The example of the challenges in curbing poor, and destructive, police performance dramatically suggests that accountability can be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. The days of journalists not explaining or defending their practices to others — and only answering to themselves or their own tribe — would in theory end with public funding. But this would probably not be the case in practice. A whole range of other shortcomings and disappointments with quality journalism — from incomplete facts to superficial analysis to documentable biases of various kinds — won’t automatically go away. There is no easy path to balancing the demanding debate between facts and values, and whether anyone, no less journalists, can present facts without advancing certain values.
The specter of dueling knowledge domains, or the familiar battles between “experts,” won’t vanish and could worsen. In Merchants of Doubt, historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway impressively document how, in the intense debate fifty years ago over whether and how cigarette smoking caused cancer, putatively independent scientists defended tobacco companies, delaying justifiable public-heath measures to limit smoking. A similar problem has arisen with debates over the effects of and responses to climate change.7 Inevitably, just as public funding of scientists and engineers can support shoddy research, so it likely will do the same for flawed or biased journalism. Literacy and awareness are responses that can limit this problem.
The forces of creative destruction — forces conspiring to shrink serious journalism by the day — will not relent. That’s because digital journalism exacerbates rather than resolves the central contradiction behind the steady commercial decline of our field. Journalism is valuable because journalism is a public good, not in spite of it. And so to sustain journalism of the sort that the market barely supports today — to insure this vital new knowledge is widely shared — public funding is essential. In other realms of American life, society spends heavily on creators, scientists, teachers, and discoverers. With care and conscience, the U.S. must do the same for journalists, with greater intensity, skill, and foresight.
G. Pascal Zacharyis the author of Endless Frontier a biography of Vannevar Bush, organizer of the Manhattan Project, creator of the National Science Foundation, and the first American presidential sci-ence adviser. As a working journal-ist, Zachary spent 13 years as a senior writer at The Wall Street Journal, where heauthored more than 100 front page articles. He wrote for two years the “Ping” col-umn on innovation in The New York Times and his writings on technolo-gy and society have appeared inWired, the Atlantic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. He has taught journal-ism and nonfiction writing at Stan-ford University, Arizona State, and the University of California.
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