AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2011

No Federal Bailout for Journalism   

A new FCC report closes the book on an unlikely and misguided notion.Thurs. June 9, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

The Federal Communications Commission's new study of the state of journalism in the United States is many things. One of them is the death knell for the notion that the answer to the field's myriad problems is a federal bailout.

Just a couple of years back, the notion of the feds riding to the rescue was the flavor of the month, a Romenesko staple. A much-discussed report by former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Columbia journalism professor Michael Schudson, commissioned by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, called for an FCC-bankrolled Fund for Local News. An article by The Nation's John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney of the University of Illinois advocated tax credits for people who buy newspapers. An article by David Westphal and Geoffrey Cowan of the University of Southern California traced the history of government support and concluded that "the government should assess how it can be most helpful now, when the future of news and information is so uncertain."

In response to the journalism crisis, the federal government, in the form of the FCC, undertook a massive investigation. Its report, released today, is packed with useful if not staggeringly surprising information. It includes a number of modest recommendations.

The list does not include additional federal aid.

"Government is not the main player in this drama but it can remove obstacles confronting those working to solve the problems of providing robust local news and information," the report said, "Most of the solutions to today's media problems will be found by entrepreneurs, reporters, and creative citizens, not legislators or agencies. Government cannot 'save journalism.' "

While not calling for new sources of federal aid, though, the report does says that the government could help by moving money around. It suggests the feds change the way they spend their advertising dollars (about about $1 billion in 2005), shifting some from national to local news operations. The report stresses that if this happened, it would require a system to ensure "political neutrality."

The call for federal if not divine intervention at the time was understandable. Journalism seemed to be in free fall, with traditional news organizations losing revenue and shedding staffers at alarming rates. Nothing seemed to be off, as they say, the table. The negative implications for democracy were huge.

But this idea never seemed like a very good idea to me. The separation of government and news outlet is deeply embedded in our political system, for good reason.

Of course, it's not absolute, what with postal subsidies for newspapers and federal assistance for public television and radio. But deepening the tie with, say, specifically targeted grants as opposed to a general subsidy for all publications seems the wrong direction to go.

And, as NPR's panicked sacking of CEO Vivian Schiller suggests, the largesse for public broadcasting does not come without serious costs.

More government assistance seemed a nonstarter at the time. And now, with Congress searching frantically for ways to slash spending, and given the Tea Party disdain for the "lamestream" media, the chances are slim and none, and slim left town.

The FCC reports that new and exciting digital approaches to newsgathering, many funded by nonprofits, so far have hardly made up for the cutbacks by traditional media. That reflects the findings of AJR's reports on the state of federal, state, foreign and investigative coverage (which are amply cited and generously credited in the report).

There's no chance that a panacea will emerge. The ride will remain bumpy.

But we're early in the digital age. A spirit of experimentation is in the air. Some see the emergence of the tablet as an important positive development for the future of news. Others point to the encouraging early response to the New York Times' much-watched paywall.

We're going to have to work this thing out without Big Daddy. That's not necessarily a bad thing.