03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Needed: Social Investment in An Informed Society

You could keep yourself quite busy these days reading about and attending conferences on new models for journalism. But the current moment of journalistic ferment is actually part of a larger and more alarming story.

The United States is dramatically underinvesting in the production and circulation of knowledge.

Three headlines reveal the larger landscape: "America Falling: Longtime Dominance in Education Erodes." "Libraries Struggle with Tight Budgets." "US Statehouse Reporting in Decline."

On the surface, these sound like separate issues. Our colleges, libraries, and newspapers face distinct challenges. To some extent, their problems have different causes, and they require different solutions.

But they share a common pathology: The United States is relying excessively on free market forces to sustain the key institutions that produce an informed, knowledgeable society. Those forces have fallen short. Increased social investment has not followed.

From 1980 to 2004, state support for colleges and universities shrank from 46 to 27 percent. Tuition as a source of support rose from 13 to 18 percent. America faces unprecedented competition in the global knowledge economy. But we are shifting the cost of creating competitors from the greater society to the shoulders of individual students.

Libraries fare no better. Americans visited libraries 1.4 billion times in 2005. Over two-thirds of adults have library cards. Yet, in 2003, 2004, and 2005, U.S. communities cut library support. Many are trimming services just as Americans are most desperate for them.

As for newspapers, individual subscribers have never paid the full freight for gathering and reporting local news. We have relied, instead, on advertising.

That model unraveled in the 1990s. Major news organizations undertook debt that they cannot repay. Internet advertising shrank their revenue streams. Newspaper ad revenues fell nearly a third between 2000 and 2007.

Are public media likely to meet the local news shortfall? Federal investment in public media is currently $1.35 per person. Most local public radio stations in the U.S. have virtually no news staff at all. At the same time, Canada invests $22.48 per capita and England spends $80.36.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought the United States was Number One in more or less everything. More important, I thought we wanted to be.

No more. Unless America decides to invest collectively in developing an informed, knowledgeable society, our decline is both frightening and inevitable. "New models" for journalism, education, or the sharing of knowledge generally will fall short unless we take a hard look at our public policies on information.