Writing in The Mediashift Idea Lab on pbs.org, David Sasaki wins the award for the longest argument yet in favor of government funding of the failing journalism business.
I try not to get into outright arguments here, but this seems to me to be a really, really bad idea. You can’t micro-manage every single industry with bailouts and new taxes to support them. If US automakers, for instance, can’t build cars that people want, then they should contract, combine or even, in the most extreme outcome, disappear. We won’t have any shortage of vehicles, as better-run companies slip in to fill the void. That’s cold, true, but that’s also the marketplace in action.
Same goes for journalism. If newspapers have created the perfect storm of outdated content and revenue models at the very moment when user consumption patterns are changing radically, then that’s a bright neon sign that it’s time to change. Not that it’s time to find a deep-pocketed government benefactor to allow things to operate as they always have.
But don’t tell that to David Sasaki. He’s thinking about the National Journalism Foundation, funded by the federal government. Which, as we all know, is really you and me:
The National Journalism Foundation would essentially serve as a re-invented Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Annual funding should increase from $200 million to $3 billion. (One percent of the total cost of the Iraq War; four percent of the federal bank bailout.) Similar to the NSF, the National Journalism Foundation would regularly award grants to individuals, organizations, and institutions that propose projects which serve to better inform the American public about their communities, government, nation, and the rest of the world. PBS and NPR would, of course, continue to receive funding, but other organizations and projects like EveryBlock and FiveThirtyEight.com, which provide important information to the public but don’t attract advertising revenue, would also be considered for funding.
As described, it sounds sort of enticing. Let’s fund the the cool startups. Let’s tax those “telecommunications giants” (who will, no doubt, totally absorb these new taxes out of the kindness of their bleeding hearts) and give the money away to a super-sized Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Yes, let’s. And Popsicles for everyone.
Or, publishers could look down the long-barrel of changing realities and change in ways that will allow them to continue in the business of informing people while still making a profit. But they surely won‘t do that if the Gravy Train is about to pull into town, just like GM won’t change if it’s guaranteed a future through taxpayer bailouts.
And what’s really the worst thing about this? Live for 5-10 years under such a system, and the bulk of the press will be dependent on the government for funding, essentially defanging an already gap-toothed watchdog.
Sorry, I’m not buying it. Journalism is currently screwed, but that’s a good thing. It’s finally forcing some real change. Let’s not screw that up by taking away the only incentive they have to change: fear.