CIR board member Len Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, is making waves with a new report on the numerous challenges facing journalism in the United States: “The Reconstruction of American Journalism.” Downie coauthored the report with sociologist Michael Schudson, who has joint appointments at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and UC San Diego. They make a powerful case for more “accountability news reporting” of the kind that CIR has been doing for several decades.
Downie and Schudson put forward a number of recommendations, including urging universities to assume a more central role in doing reporting that traditionally newspapers have undertaken, and making information collected by local, state and federal governments more accessible to promote more informed citizen journalism.
Their most controversial proposal—by far—is that the federal government subsidize local news coverage. The FCC, they argue, “should direct some of the money from the telephone bill surcharge—or from fees paid by radio and television licensees, or proceeds from auctions of telecommunications spectrum, or new fees imposed on Internet service providers—to finance a Fund for Local News that would make grants for advances in local news reporting and innovative ways to support it.”
This is a variation on arguments made over the years by various observers, including a compelling article by John Nichols and Robert McChesney in The Nation earlier this year.
If the United Kingdom can do it by underwriting the BBC with television license fees, why shouldn’t we do something similar in the United States? The idea is not as outlandish as it may seem, as Nichols and McChesney write. It is one that dates back to the nation’s founding.
According to Nichols and McChesney:
Jefferson and Madison devoted considerable energy to explaining the necessity of the press to a vibrant democracy. The government implemented extraordinary postal subsidies for the distribution of newspapers. It also instituted massive newspaper subsidies through printing contracts and the paid publication of government notices, all with the intent of expanding the number and variety of newspapers. When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s he was struck by the quantity and quality of newspapers and periodicals compared with France, Canada and Britain. It was not an accident. It had little to do with “free markets.” It was the result of public policy.
A Fund for Local News is a terrific idea. Whether it should—or could—be underwritten by the United States government is another question altogether. Let the debate begin.