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Journalism Bailout Bill: The News and Information for Democracy Act of 2011?

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There's yet another newspaper "turn off the lights" commentary in the New York Times, appearing ghoulishly on the last day of 2008: "When the Watchdogs Don't Bark," tracking Zell-related and Journal-Register depredations in Connecticut (Hartford, New Britain and Bristol) and journalistic enterprises laid waste in New Jersey. This summary led to a Silent Spring epitaph by Maura Casey, of the Times editorial staff, despairing at the future of democracy when there's a lack of intense watchdog coverage of local authorities: "If the power of journalism is measured by its ability to spark anxiety in government officials, it's hard to imagine a more relaxing time to hold public office."

Local Connecticut lawmakers are imploring the state legislature to intervene and help save their historic, regional newsrooms from extinction. And Robert MacMillan of Reuters sparked discussion in an article pegged to the Connecticut weaknesses: "Government aid could save U.S. newspapers, spark debate."

It's time to start thinking (only half facetiously) about a U.S. Journalism Bailout Bill (the possibility is already the subject of ridicule here).

Not that there aren't precedents for promoting news and information as a public good and intervening to encourage the health of the sector.

There are the oldies but goodies (some only remotely effective and some counterproductive): the fairness doctrine, postal subsidies for magazines and papers and the long-standing public interest, convenience and necessity test in broadcasting. In 1970, President Nixon signed the Newspaper Preservation Act to encourage the survival of competing papers in two-newspaper markets by authorizing joint operating agreements that might otherwise violate antitrust laws. (The history of government support for a press is superbly told in Paul Starr's "The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications."

The case for legislation is the relatively easy part: our idea of a democratic society depends on the notion of informed voters, and of a press that can serve as a watchdog and critic of power. The emerged industrial structure that has (arguably) allowed us to have a democracy-supporting media is being rapidly eviscerated. That's the point of Maura Casey's argument in the New York Times. And though an alternate practice of journalism and of the press is evolving, there are doubts whether it is sufficient.

So the time is ripe for rethinking the First Amendment as a positive call for non-market support of a meaningful journalism. This would be in the First Amendment tradition that allows the creation of a postal subsidy rather than the First Amendment that solely prohibits censorship.

Here is a something of a grab bag of ideas that could be adopted for such legislation.

Let's start with a broad picture of the transition to digital. The United States has been planning for years now for the shift from analogue to digital television. There has been federal involvement, with lots of benefits to broadcasters (providing extra frequencies for example), and a variety of efforts to make the transition smooth. In some European countries, there was even more of a planning process to ensure a useful substantive outcome.

It looks like we're going through a painful transition from analogue to digital newspapers, from print to Internet. A comprehensive piece of legislation--let's call it The News and Information for Democracy Act of 2011--could help lubricate the transition, determine whether there are common or collective approaches that would make the transition smoother, and possibly provide some transition support and supplement the working of "the market" with a sense of what the path should be from here to there.

Here's an example: bring down the price of the Kindle or Sony Reader to under $25 and make the devices universal delivery systems for local and national papers; have each Kindle default-programmed to receive one of several competing national digital papers and one local paper, building in an annual fee for a newspaper fund that is billed to the holder of the low-cost or free apparatus.

Federal legislation could establish (maybe in something like the somewhat independent National Endowment for Democracy), a Center for Journalism and Citizenship. It could provide technical assistance (and perhaps funding) for state and local efforts to prop up existing journalistic enterprises or to encourage web-based substitutes. Such a center could bring together and encourage the many efforts now outstanding. See, as examples out of hundreds, the excellent work of Persephone Miel at Harvard's Berkman Center (News and Information as Digital Information Comes of Age) and the efforts of the Knight Foundation's Commission on Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

One little-noted example of an interesting struggle in this direction is the work of the group called Digital Promise. After a decade of tinkering with an earlier effort at their behest--a national media trust for the public interest--Congress, in August, 2008, authorized a National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies.

Two long-time dedicated activists, Newt Minow and Larry Grossman, had unsuccessfully lobbied for the enactment of a Digital Opportunity Investment Trust that would have taken spectrum fees and other funds to reinvigorate the idea of public interest content in broadcasting.

But here's the "business plan" for journalism payoff: think of a small tax on Internet usage that would go into a fund to support journalism (like proposals for taxes on audio players or "blank media" levies, more popular in Europe).

Some additional aspects of The News and Information for Democracy Act of 2011: If there is a massive public service training option for young people in the Obama Administration, could some element of it involve opportunities for journalistic practice in ways linked to other objectives (community development, infrastructure growth, environmental change)?

The Works Progress Administration (which suddenly does not seem totally ancient history) had, as part of its Theater Project, "The Living Newspaper," which began with WPA journalists researching social issues of the day. We're not there yet, but the Federal Writers Project could look attractive too in some fearful future.

Issues that were largely off the table for many years should be rethought: permitting or encouraging the combination of local television newsroom and newspaper newsrooms, even (as in the 1970 Act) allowing or encouraging cross ownership (this increases, concentration, I know, but it's worthy of study).

Smaller steps:
  • Provide incentives to advertisers who place their business in digital papers that meet a minimum standard in terms of informing the public
  • Rationalize the crazy structure of public service broadcasting so that the sector could yield a more effective national competitor on the broadcasting side, with a duty to promote a more informed and educated citizenry
  • Ensure the continued existence of C-Span
  • Make subscribing to a newspaper tax-deductible or ensure advantages to contributors to sites like Spot.Us, which facilitates citizen funding of investigative local stories
  • Encourage, perhaps through NPR (though CNN seems to be on this track), a more accessible, newspaper-feeding public international news agency
  • Provide legal protection for NGOs, independent bloggers, aggregators, curators and amplifiers (to borrow the language of Global Voices) so they are not so subject to the whims of aggressive plaintiffs in defamation actions
I'm engaging here in a bit of free association and coupling notions that are rooted within existing traditions with ideas that have been close to anathema. But the significant point is recognizing news and information as a public good, and recognizing the consequences of that for public policy.

We've just gone through, during the last two years, a period of extraordinary focus and journalistic output domestically, together with an unnerving set of concerns about the viability of existing news institutions and the future of journalism. It's definitely not clear that all alarms are properly sounded. The last election cycle makes one wonder whether we have actually seen a democratic deficit in information and news or the emergence of an amazing new time.

Somewhere out there, we need to find the complex combination of improving conditions for journalistic institutions to exist, by lowering their costs of access to international and other news, improving demand through media literacy and other techniques, and finding new streams of revenue.

Pretty obviously what needs to be saved are the functions of journalism themselves, not necessarily the institutions in which they are currently imbedded. And the Orwellian dangers of a government-encouraged "free press" are also pretty obvious.

David Yassky, at the time a young legal scholar, once wrote about "eras" of the First Amendment concluding that the free speech and press clause has meant different things in American society at different times. Perhaps we're on the brink of a new era: when the Amendment will come to symbolize an affirmative opportunity for government to recognize and support the importance of news and information in a democracy as a public good.