News Leadership 3.0

October 19, 2009

Paying for journalism: Government is not a business model

A new report by Leonard Downie of The Washington Post and Michael Schudson of Columbia University calls for a government fund to support journalism. Wouldn’t that simply force consumers to pay (less directly) for news and information they do not want to pay for now?

The Reconstruction of American Journalism” offers a sweeping overview of the forces and developments that are reshaping journalism in the United States today. Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations for fostering public service and accountability journalism fall well short of the impressive build up.


1. The Internal Revenue Service or Congress should clearly and explicitly authorize any independent news organization substantially devoted to reporting on public affairs to be created as or converted into a nonprofit entity or a Low-profit Limited Liability Corporation serving the public interest, regardless of its mix of financial support, including commercial sponsorship and advertising.

2. Philanthropists, foundations, and community foundations should substantially increase their support for news organizations that have demonstrated a substantial commitment to public affairs and accountability reporting.

3. Public radio and television should be substantially reoriented to provide significant local news reporting in every community served by public stations and their Web sites. This requires urgent action by and reform of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, increased congressional funding and support for public media news reporting,and changes in mission and leadership for many public stations across the country.

4. Universities, both public and private, should become on-going sources of local, state, specialized subject, and accountability news reporting as part of their educational missions.

5. A national Fund for Local News should be created with money the Federal Communications Commission now collects from or could impose on telecom users, television and radio broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers and administered in open competition through state Local News Fund Councils.

6. More should be done—by journalists, nonprofit organizations, and governments—to increase the accessibility and usefulness of public information collected by federal, state, and local governments, to facilitate the gathering and dissemination of public information by citizens, and to expand public recognition of the many sources of relevant reporting.

Some of these things are already happening—foundations are supporting news and information, universities are reporting news, a looser model for a nonprofit news entity is under debate in Congress. All well and good.

But recommendation No. 5—the creation of a fund for local news and state councils to hand out the money -  is troubling on two counts:
1. Imposing new fees to create a Fund for Local News suggests ultimately making consumers pay for news that they now are not willing to pay for. That would make journalism even more popular than ever, right?
2. The state Local News Fund Councils sound unwieldy and open to politicization.

Better a model such as Spot.Us, where members of the public vote with their dollars to fund stories they want to see done.

I have a great deal of respect for both Downie and Schudson. But their recommendation No. 5 sends us down a garden path of wishful thinking when we need to hit the highway of innovating business models for news around the ideas of service and engagement.


Yeah, I agree, i have come to see the journalism in a new light.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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