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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   March 2010  issue

A Federal Bailout for Papers?   

Asking public officials to come to the rescue of the very news outlets that investigate them


By Kevin Klose
Kevin Klose is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and president of AJR.     

Indiana's centrist U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh turned heads recently when he fled into the political night, all but warning outright that fair Liberty's days could be numbered by partisan political strife.

Few saw his flight as anything other than dispiriting confirmation of an ugly truth: Gridlock is a wasting disease in Washington.

Yet even as Democrat Bayh railed against heedless cloakroom bicker, other voices clamored for the same Congress in the same Capitol to take what many could only see as an improbable step in response to an outrageous demand: save our liberties by saving our..newsrooms!

In the long, complex relationship of America's Fourth Estate with all the others in our democracy, the chapter being urged now surely is among the most unexpected and problematic: federal tax relief and subsidies to nurture the kind of newsrooms that have routinely brought to public light scandals of political misconduct.

Indeed, soon after Bayh announced that he would not seek reelection, the political career of the leader of one of the nation's most important states--New York Gov. David Paterson--came crashing down via a page one story in the New York Times of Thursday, February 25, 2010 (VOL. CLIX, No. 54,962), which revealed that Paterson had personally intervened in a domestic violence case involving a close aide with a history of altercations with women.

The ink was barely dry on the page when Paterson announced he would not seek election this fall. No matter that his political fortunes were already at low ebb before No. 54,962 hit the streets. Even his detractors in the scandal-worn state capital, Albany, might pause in their daily rounds to behold the power of a newsroom and its reporters to wreck the dreams of an appointed governor who yearned for election in his own right to show he was better than his disgraced predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, himself forced from the governor's mansion in a call-girl sex scandal.

Would the latest investigative coup by the nation's most eminent city daily earn enthusiastic bipartisan support in a Congress whose votes could be needed if federal financial aid for news organizations were to become a reality?

For starters, few traditional industries in America are in such a state of intense, chaotic change, brought on by the digital information revolution. This is a vast event--a confusing, exhilarating, fascinating transformation from a universe dominated by well-defined, centralized news production and distribution organizations to diverse constellations of newsgatherers large and small, with powers of instantaneous global distribution.

Amid this transformation, a disparate group of academics, public policy thinkers and accomplished journalists are advocating for unique federal support. Prominent among them are Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post (and one of my bosses when I worked there), and Michael Schudson, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, coauthors of a report, "The Reconstruction of American Journalism"; and Robert W. McChesney, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois, and John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, coauthors of the more dramatically titled book, "The Death and Life of American Journalism."

Each work proposes a mix of financial remedies, tax law revisions and other federal support (such as funding a special "journalism division" of the federally subsidized AmeriCorps jobs program), as well as aid from private foundations, universities and individuals to upgrade and stabilize high-quality, independent newsgathering, improving it wherever possible at the local level.

The greatest support would come from the federal government, which requires what might be termed a principled suspension of disbelief: that elected officeholders and federal officials may eagerly heed calls for new kinds of financial assistance to news organizations--which could strengthen newsrooms' abilities to investigate elected officeholders and federal officials.

Of the four authors mentioned above, I can attest that Len Downie is a realist, a high-energy, sleeves-rolled-up practitioner of hardnosed journalism, during whose 17 years as top editor the Post won 25 Pulitzer Prizes. He and Schudson acknowledge the difficulties of experimenting, of reimagining and reinventing journalism. But they are optimistic: "All of this is within reach... We want to see more leaders emerge in journalism, government, philanthropy, higher education, and the rest of society to seize this moment of challenging times and new beginnings to ensure the freedom of independent news reporting."

Right on, colleagues!