Journalism: Bail it out or write it off
This will be my last column for the L.A. Times. After four years, I’ll soon be starting a stint at the Pentagon as an advisor to the undersecretary of Defense for policy.
Some might say I have a “new job,” but because I’ll be escaping a dying industry -- and your tax dollars will shortly be paying my salary -- I prefer to think of it as my personal government bailout.
Like everyone else whose livelihood is linked to the newspaper industry, I’ve been watching, appalled, as newspapers continue their death spiral, with dwindling circulations and thousands of layoffs. Here at The Times, the editorial staff is down to almost half the size it was in 2000. Often, as I’ve watched talented colleagues get the ax, I’ve suspected that I’ve only lasted this long because as a freelancer -- with no benefits and minimal pay -- I’m just too cheap to be worth firing.
Still, I knew it was time to pray for a government bailout in December, when my editor explained that because the paper’s parent company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, I might not get paid for my recent columns. From a legal perspective, he told me, I wasn’t a columnist -- I was an “unsecured creditor” of Tribune Co. (Along with other freelancers, I got paid in the end, but if I ever do this again, I’ll be sure to ask CEO Sam Zell for some collateral first -- the title to his house, maybe.)
Of course, I’m not taking a government job only because I feel lucky to parachute out before some cost-cutter eliminates every last column. At this moment in history, I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than being part of the new team that’s shaping U.S. policy.
But as I say goodbye to my wonderful Times colleagues, I also can’t imagine anything more dangerous than a society in which the news industry has more or less collapsed.
If newspapers become mostly infotainment websites -- if the number of well-trained investigative journalists dwindles still further -- and if we’re soon left with nothing but the yapping heads who dominate cable “news” and talk radio, how will we recognize, or hope to forestall, impending national and global crises? How will we know if government officials have made terrible mistakes, as even the best will sometimes do? How will we know if government officials have told us terrible lies, as the worst have sometimes done? A decimated, demoralized and under-resourced press corps hardly questioned the Bush administration’s flimsy case for war in Iraq -- and the price for that failure will be paid for generations.
It’s time for a government bailout of journalism.
If we’re willing to use taxpayer money to build roads, pay teachers and maintain a military; if we’re willing to bail out banks and insurance companies and failing automakers, we should be willing to part with some public funds to keep journalism alive too. In an article in the April 6 Nation, John Nichols and Robert McChesney offer some ideas on how to bail out the news industry. They suggest, for instance, eliminating postal rates for periodicals that get less than 20% of their revenues from advertising, a tax credit for the first $200 taxpayers spend on newspaper subscriptions and a substantial expansion of funding for public broadcasting. Meanwhile, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced legislation to allow many existing newspapers to restructure as tax-exempt nonprofit educational institutions. And these ideas are just a start.
If the thought of government subsidization of journalism seems novel, it shouldn’t. Most other democracies provide far more direct government support for public media than the U.S. does (Canada spends 16 times as much per capita; Britain spends 60 times as much). And as Nichols and McChesney point out, our government already “doles out tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect [media] subsidies,” including free broadcast, cable and satellite privileges.
The problem is that many of these subsidies are currently structured in ways that have actually contributed to the decline of high-quality journalism by enabling monopolies, freezing out smaller and locally controlled media outlets and encouraging large corporations to treat the news as just another product, no different from video games or sports teams.
Years of foolish policies have left us with a choice: We can bail out journalism, using tax dollars and granting licenses in ways that encourage robust and independent reporting and commentary, or we can watch, wringing our hands, as more and more top journalists are laid off or bail out, leaving us with nothing in our newspapers but ads, entertainment features and crossword puzzles.
Don’t let it happen.