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How the Internet Can Save Journalism

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The sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos is just the most recent episode in the decline and fall of professional journalism. By selling out to a mega-billionaire without any newspaper experience, the Graham family has put a priceless national asset at the mercy of a single outsider. Perhaps Jeff Bezos will use his new plaything responsibly; perhaps not; if not, one of the few remaining sources of serious journalism will be lost.

The crisis in the English-speaking world will turn into a catastrophe in smaller language zones. The English-speaking market is so large that advertisers will pay a lot to gain access to the tens of millions of readers who regularly click onto the New York Times or the Guardian. But the Portuguese-reading public is far too small to support serious journalism on the internet. What happens to Portuguese democracy when nobody is willing to pay for old-fashioned newspapers?

The blogosphere can't be expected to take up the slack. First-class reporting on national and international affairs isn't for amateurs. It requires lots of training and lots of contacts and lots of expenses. It also requires reporters with the well-honed capacity to write for a broad audience -- something that eludes the overwhelming majority of academic specialists and think-tank policy wonks. And it requires editors who recognize the need to maintain their organization's long-term credibility when presenting the hot-button news of the day. The modern newspaper created the right incentives, but without a comparable business model for the new technology, blogging will degenerate into a postmodern nightmare -- with millions spouting off without any concern for the facts.

We can't afford to wait for the invisible hand to come up with a new way to provide economic support for serious journalism. To be sure, the financial press has proved moderately successful in persuading readers to pay for online access; and mainstream media are now trying to emulate this success. But if tens of millions of readers don't succumb to the charms of PayPal -- and quickly -- now is the time for some creative thinking.

For starters, it would be a mistake to rely on a BBC-style solution. It is one thing for government to serve as a major source of news; quite another to give it a virtual monopoly on reporting. This could mean the death of critical fact-based inquiry when a demagogic government takes power -- this risk is especially great in small language zones, where outside media can't take up the slack.

Enter the Internet news voucher. Under our proposal, each news article on the web will end by asking readers whether it contributed to their political understanding. If so, they can click the yes-box, and send the message to a National Endowment for Journalism -- which would obtain an annual appropriation from the government. This money would be distributed to news organizations on the basis of a strict mathematical formula: the more clicks, the bigger the check from the Endowment.

Some readers will use their new-found freedom to support the "news reports" of sensationalist tabloids. Yet serious journalism will also succeed in gaining mass support. Common sense, as well as fundamental liberal values, counsels against any governmental effort to regulate the quality of news.

Nevertheless, some restrictions should apply. The Endowment should not be in the business of subsidizing libel. It should limit grants to news organizations prepared to put up an insurance policy to cover the costs of compensating people whose reputations they destroy through false reporting.

This means that a news organization must have a group of editors and fact-checkers committed to journalistic integrity. Otherwise, it won't be in a position to buy libel insurance at a reasonable price. It's only if a news-group passes this market test that it can open its voucher account with the National Endowment.

There are lots of other design issues to consider, but they are solvable.

Although the Internet may have destroyed the newspaper's old business model, we can use it to create a new decentralized system that may generate an even more vibrant marketplace of ideas for the twenty-first century.

We live in an era of massive budgetary deficits -- not the best moment for impassioned pronunciamentos for new government initiatives. But the internet-voucher isn't just another handout. It is a key element in preserving a functioning democratic system now that the invisible hand will no longer reliably support serious journalism.

The sale of the Washington Post won't convince Congressional Republicans to support a new Endowment in their present budget-slashing frenzy. But European leadership on this issue isn't a pipe-dream. France and Germany will soon find themselves in positions little better than Norway or Holland. All these nations have a great tradition of support for their national cultures. If one country moves forward and succeeds, others will follow.

Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres are professors of law at Yale, and the authors of Voting with Dollars.