ESSAY: Media reformers propose $200 tax break for newspaper subscribers; news literacy in schools

In a groundbreaking essay, two of the United States' most prominent media reformers are calling for a $200-a-year tax credit for subscribers to daily newspapers, reduced megazine postal rates and news-literacy ducation in schools as methods for sustaining journalism.

In an article in the forthcoming edition of The Nation magazine, already
posted online, John Nichols and Robert McChesny write, "We confess that we do not have all the answers. Neither, we have discovered, does anyone else."

They argue that a corporate focus on high profits, rather than the economic downturn or the Internet, is the root cause of a perceived crisis
in U.S. journalism. They suggest the United States, which they assert spends $450 million annual to support public media, should be spending more like $10 billion as compared with other developed democracies.

What do you think about this idea? Here's one reaction from a different political perspective.

The full essay is here:

Here is shortened version of the essay, abridged with the consent of Mr. McChesney:

Communities across America are suffering through a crisis that could leave  a dramatically diminished version of democracy in its wake. Journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States.

The technologies and the economic challenges are, of course, more complex than in the 1790s, but the answer is the same: the democratic state, the government, must create the conditions for sustaining the journalism that can provide the people with the information they need to be their own governors.

Just about every serious journalist involved in an online project will readily concede that even if these ventures pan out, we will still have a dreadfully undernourished journalism system with considerably less news gathering and reporting, especially at the local level.

The fatal flaw in so many sincere but doomed responses to the current  crisis is that they try to do the impossible, to create a system using varying doses of foundation grants, do-gooder capitalism, citizen donations, volunteer labor, the anticipation of a miraculous increase in advertising manna and/or a sudden--and in our view unimaginable--reversal on the oart of Americans who have thus far shown no inclination to pay for nline content.

At best, these are piecemeal proposals when we are in dire need of building an entire edifice. The money from these sources is insufficient
to address the crisis in journalism.

We begin with the notion that journalism is a public good, that it has
broad social benefits far beyond that between buyer and seller. Like all
public goods, we need the resources to get it produced. This is the role
of the state and public policy. It will require a subsidy and should be regarded as similar to the education system or the military in that regard.

Only a nihilist would consider it sufficient to rely on profit-seeking commercial interests or philanthropy to educate our youth or defend the nation from attack. With the collapse of the commercial news system, the
same logic applies.

The truth is that government policies and subsidies already define our press system. The government subsidies established by the founders did not end in the eighteenth--or even the nineteenth--century. Today the government doles out tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies, including free and essentially permanent monopoly broadcast licenses, monopoly cable and satellite privileges, copyright protection and postal subsidies.

We have to ask where we want to end up, after the reforms have been
implemented. In our view we need to have competing independent newsrooms of well-paid journalists in every state and in every major community.

So, if we can accept the need for government intervention to save American journalism, what form should it take? In the near term, we need to think about an immediate journalism economic stimulus, to be revisited after three years, and we need to think big.

  • Let's eliminate postal rates for periodicals that garner less than 20 percent of their revenues from advertising.
  • What to do about newspapers? Let's give all Americans an annual tax credit for the first $200 they spend on daily newspapers. The newspapers would have to publish at least five times per week and maintain a substantial "news hole," say at least twenty-four broad pages each day, with less than 50 percent advertising. In effect, this means the government will pay for every citizen who so desires to get a free daily newspaper subscription, but the taxpayer gets to pick the newspaper--this is an indirect subsidy, because the government does not control who gets the money.
  • What should be done about the disconnect between young people and journalism? Have the government allocate funds so every middle school, high school and college has a well-funded student newspaper and a low-power FM radio station, all of them with substantial websites. We need  to get young people accustomed to producing journalism and to appreciating what differentiates good journalism from the other stuff.

Other democracies outspend the United States by whopping margins per
capita on public media: Canada sixteen times more; Germany twenty times more; Japan forty-three times more; Britain sixty times more; Finland and Denmark seventy-five times more.

Currently the U.S. government spends less than $450 million annually on public media. (To put matters in perspective, it spends several times that much on Pentagon public relations designed, among other things, to encourage favorable press coverage of the wars that the vast majority of Americans oppose.) Based on what other highly democratic and free countries do, the allocation from the government should be closer to $10 billion.

These investments have produced dramatically more detailed and incisive
international reporting, as well as programming to serve young people,
women, linguistic and ethnic minorities and regions that might otherwise
be neglected by for-profit media.