This article appeared in the December 14, 2009 edition of The Nation.
We will give you the good news first: the politicians and regulators who have it in their power to do something about the decline of American journalism are finally paying attention.
Already this year, House and Senate hearings have investigated the crisis. And even as Congress focuses this fall on health care reform and rising unemployment, all signs suggest that media matters will be back on the front burner in 2010, one hopes with less focus on what's gone awry and more on proposals to set things right. Encouragingly, federal agencies are taking tentative steps that could produce those proposals.
In early December the Federal Trade Commission will hold an unprecedented hearing to assess the radical downsizing and outright elimination of newspaper newsrooms and to consider public-policy measures that might arrest a precipitous collapse in reporting and editing of the news. The FTC staffers who have organized this hearing give the distinct impression of being seriously concerned about the crisis and seriously interested in responding to it. The Federal Communications Commission is also launching an extraordinary review of the state of journalism. The work was spearheaded initially by FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who has as firm a grasp of the problem as any player in Washington. The FCC review likely will emphasize the disintegration of local journalism. Its findings could also lead to sweeping changes in fundamental regulations.
Now for the bad news: the way the challenges facing journalism are being discussed, indeed the way the crisis itself is being framed, will make it tough for even the most sincere policy-makers to offer a viable answer to it.
The FTC's conference is titled "How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?" FCC chair Julius Genachowski explains the crisis as the result of "game-changing new technologies as well as the economic downturn." The assumption is clear: it's the Internet that's the problem. But just as MTV's debut pronouncement that "Video Killed the Radio Star" proved to be dramatically overstated, so is the notion that journalism's disintegration can be attributed to a brand-new digital revolution or even an old-fashioned economic meltdown.
The decline of commercial journalism predates the web. Newsrooms began to give up on maintaining staffs sufficient to cover their communities — effectively reducing the number of reporters relative to the overall population — in the 1980s. Real cuts came in the 1990s and have accelerated since then. All the pathologies blamed on the rise of the Internet — declines in science reporting, the disappearance of serious business and labor coverage, cutbacks in investigations and the shuttering of statehouse, Washington and international bureaus — began before anyone knew what it meant to Google.
These trends went largely unnoticed because the dominant news-media firms continued to rake in colossal profits. By downsizing reporting staffs and ramping up less expensive journalism based on trivia, sensationalism and press releases, they were able for years to maintain boomtime profits. But the party was destined to come to an end, as readers and viewers gave up on "products" that no longer contained much in the way of news.
Don't get us wrong. The Internet has shaken up the commercial model of journalism. People don't pay for what they can get free online. Advertisers that subsidized journalism for more than a century now bypass news media to reach consumers directly (most devastating for the dailies has been the loss of classifieds, which have gone to Craigslist). They aren't coming back. But the primary impact of the Internet has been to accelerate and make irreversible a process that began before the digital age.
The market has voted journalism off the island. This necessary nutrient of democracy will be washed away unless we recognize that commercial values are no longer going to provide us with sufficient quality journalism. It's a waste of valuable time attempting to cook up new schemes to make the process of news gathering and distribution as profitable as it once was.
Policy-makers need to take a page from American history. The framers understood that the government must not simply assure that a free and independent press may exist; it must set policies and expend resources with an eye toward guaranteeing that an independent free press will exist. No one in the first generations of the Republic thought the market would suffice; as a result, the American independent press was built on extraordinary and massive postal and printing subsidies that lasted well into the nineteenth century, remnants of which remain with us to this day. Similar subsidies — for instance, a massive increase in funding for public and community broadcasting outlets, which have never enjoyed the advantages bestowed by regulators upon commercial broadcasters — could foster the vibrant independent journalism of the twenty-first century.
Today, as in the early Republic, our system of government cannot succeed and our individual freedoms cannot survive without an informed, participating citizenry, and that requires competitive, independent news media. For that to happen, however, the FTC, the FCC and Congress must stop blaming the Internet and start thinking about how enlightened subsidies could revitalize the very necessary public good that is journalism.