Free press, with profits

Newspapers are for sale across the country. National Public Radio and television news shows are laying off staff. The Tribune Co. (which owns this and other newspapers) is in bankruptcy. It’s clear that journalism is in crisis, and in the current recession, things are likely to get much worse.

That’s alarming. A robust press is vital to our democracy. And while bloggers and other new-media news operations have enriched the public dialogue in important ways, their work still depends on the painstaking -- and expensive -- reporting supplied by traditional journalists.

Some conclude from the recent dire reports about the news business that people are no longer interested in serious journalism. In fact, more people than ever are consuming news. The Los Angeles Times, for example, still has nearly 750,000 subscribers to its daily print edition -- and it also attracts more than 9 million visitors to its website each month.

What’s broken is the economic model.

For decades, publishers and broadcasters operated as an indispensable source of news and advertising, with the advertisers paying most of the freight. Today, much of the classified advertising market has fled to sites such as Craigslist, and the Web gives other advertisers more targeted and less expensive options. Subscriptions too are down, as readers who used to pay for newspapers and magazines increasingly access them online for free. As a result, journalism -- like music, cinema and other creative industries -- is confronted with the question: Who will pay for creating content?

Serious news coverage is costly. The New York Times reportedly spends more than $3 million a year to cover the Iraq war, for example. And the kind of investigative reporting that uncovers wrongdoing in government and business requires months-long commitments of reporters and editors. Yet as recent events demonstrate, we have a crucial need for independent reporting that gets to the bottom of what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Israel and Gaza, in Washington, on Wall Street and at city hall.

Although a banking-style bailout would be rejected out of hand by those concerned with maintaining a free and independent press, there are other possibilities. Since the start of the republic, the government has found creative ways to support the press. Insisting that the far-flung American population needed to be connected and informed, George Washington and James Madison led the effort to pass the Postal Act of 1792, which heavily subsidized postal rates to encourage the dissemination of news throughout the land. In fact, Washington argued for a totally subsidized delivery service, contending that there is “no resource so firm for the government of the United States.” Since then, the government has found countless ways to encourage or subsidize journalism, including the Federal Communication Commission’s requirement that broadcasters cover the news as a condition of obtaining a license. Today, we need to think anew about how government can ensure that citizens get the information they need and want.

Journalism is starting to look toward new ventures and possibilities, from nonprofit investigative reporting collaboratives to online community news start-ups. Citizens have begun contributing as well as consuming news, and many old-media companies have gained relevance in the age of new media. But it will take more.

Seventy years ago, with the advent of broadcasting, government insisted that the new medium include a rich array of news. In 1967, visionary leaders created the Public Broadcasting Act, giving us PBS and NPR. When newspapers seemed in jeopardy, Congress passed the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, which allowed newspapers in the same market to pool resources for such things as printing and distribution. With a new administration and a new Congress seeking fresh solutions to other crises, we need to consider new possibilities to help ensure that journalism remains able to provide the information needed by a great democracy.

There are many areas for creative solutions. Congress could increase postal-rate subsidies for magazines. It could change tax policy to remove barriers to philanthropies purchasing major news outlets. FCC policies, including rules against cross-ownership, could be reconceived to reflect the new realities of the information marketplace. Antitrust laws could be revised to allow publications to band together to charge for content. The founders understood that writers should be compensated for their work and included the copyright clause in the Constitution. We need to be equally aggressive in finding new ways to protect and reward journalism’s intellectual property in this new era.

Some commentators have suggested more direct funding for journalism. Although we won’t ever match the backing that the British Broadcasting Corp. gets from a tax on radios and television sets, we might increase support for public broadcasting and newer media through fees paid by commercial operators for use of spectrum licensed by the FCC. Others have suggested reviving the Federal Writers Project of the New Deal era. Research and development is needed too. Government-funded research created satellites, the Internet and other innovations that sowed the new-media landscape. A new initiative might help journalism earn more revenue from developing technologies.

Government action is no substitute for innovations in content and delivery mechanisms, or for fresh business models by news organizations. Nor is it a cure-all. Media owners, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, civic organizations, individual citizens and journalism schools all have a vital role to play. So do the consumers of news who might be asked to emulate listeners to public radio and pay to support the newspapers they read for free on the Web. But, as Washington and Madison recognized more than two centuries ago, the government has an indispensable role as well. This is the time to play it.

Geneva Overholser is the director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC. Geoffrey Cowan is dean emeritus of the USC Annenberg School and directs its Center on Communication Leadership.