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Week of 1.15.10

Transcript: Saving American Journalism

BRANCACCIO: Think of your favorite American newspaper, whatever it is. Then think about a world where that familiar paper no longer exists. Depending on what paper your thinking about, that scenario could be as little as a few months away. American journalism is in a state of collapse and two media scholars say the digital world is not going to fix it. What could bring journalism back from the dead is a controversial plan that could deeply involve, yes, your federal tax return. Professor Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols write all about it in their new book called "The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again".

Thanks for doing this. All right, Robert McChesney, the state of newspaper journalism right now, and I guess we could say it's in a bad stretch? That would be one phrase. Some have said total collapse. Is that fair?

MCCHESNEY: Very fair.


MCCHESNEY: Oh absolutely. If you look at it—the journalism that we knew growing up, that we've lived with our lives, that our parents knew, our grandparents knew and our great-grandparents knew, it's going away. It's not gonna exist in ten years. And we're in the process of seeing its disintegration. It's happening very rapidly. The entire economic model that sustained journalism is disappearing. It's no longer working. And it has phenomenal implications. We've barely begun to consider as a society—that go to the root of whether we can have a free society, the rule of law and our freedoms.

BRANCACCIO: Well, John Nichols, the—the stakes are high here. I saw this prediction a few months ago, but that—that the New York Times could go belly-up. Someone was counting the months. That may be a little unreasonable. But that's what we're talking about?

NICHOLS: It's absolutely what we're talking about. Understand that—we, in the last year, have seen major daily newspapers, the New York Timeses of communities around the country go down. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer shu—shut down, the Rocky Mountain News, great historic newspapers. And this is not really the core of the problem. The core of the problem is the papers that are staying open, but doing massive layoffs. You cannot maintain journalism when you are literally laying off at—at major daily newspapers dozens, even hundreds of reporters. If this keeps going, we're gonna create the perfect model for a propaganda state. The perfect model for a propaganda state is very, very few—independent journalists—independent sources of news out there, but—a need for news, a demand for information. And then what—who fills that vacuum? Well, naturally—the government and big corporations.

BRANCACCIO: Now most of those watching with have a sense of why. The Internet came in. Craigslist took all the classified ads that generated so much money for journalism. But let's move on from the why. There may not be newsprint on the front door but digital will ride to the rescue. We'll save some trees, Bob.

MCCHESNEY: Well, the problem with that is that journalism is—requires journalists. It requires editors. It requires fact-checkers. It requires institutional resources to protect the news operation from interference, be it corporate or governmental, so it can be independent. And there's no evidence that this technology, the Internet, will provide that at all. In fact—the evidence is already pretty clear that if we're gonna sit around and wait for the digital realm to recreate what we're losing, it's not coming in the foreseeable future, if ever. And so there's really—the hope that the Internet's gonna set us free. There's really much more of a faith-based—view of the problem than a reality-based one.

BRANCACCIO: But—but John, you must have some faith in the notion of free enterprise, America's innovative capacity. I mean, the digital universe presents enormous opportunities. Won't someone soon figure this out, how to bring money into journalism?

NICHOLS: Well, it's a nice notion. I can tell you this. I was one of the first bloggers. I had started blogging before we had the term blog. I've lived this world and I love it. And I love the instantaneous nature of it and so many other aspects. There's a lot of innovation. But the fundamental reality is that at a point where we're losing 1000 newspaper employees a month in layoffs, firings. We're having major newspapers closing. There is absolutely no evidence, and I want to underline that. No evidence that what we're losing is being replaced on the net. Some of these newspapers that have closed down have said, "Well, we're gonna maintain an Internet presence." But the number of people that they are employing on the Internet, compared to what they were employing in print, is often at—a one on the Internet to 20 when they were in print.

BRANCACCIO: If the old media crumbles, particularly newspapers, then who is gonna actually do the original journalism that allows, what, democracy to flourish?

NICHOLS: There's a new Pew study, from Baltimore, Maryland. And they looked at a week in Baltimore. They said, "Well, who's—who's generating the stories? What—what type of media's giving us the stories?" 96 percent, even in this state of decline for old media—96 percent were coming from old media. Only four percent from the Internet.
And—they suggest that as the amount of coverage by traditional media, they—particularly the Baltimore Sun has declined dramatically that more and more, the stories are driven by official sources, be they governmental or corporate. Only about 14 percent of the stories in the—in the study were generated by reporters going out and, you know, digging, finding something and putting it on the agenda.

MCCHESNEY: In fact, what we do in the book, it's one of the research we did for the book is that we chronicled the number of P.R. officials and the number of journalists per 100,000 people going back to the early 1960s. And at—back in the 1960s, there were roughly the same number of P.R. people as journalists in the United States per 100,000 people. And starting in the early '80s, it spreads and you see the number of journalists stagnate per 100,000, and then since the late '80s, it's declined and declined sharply per 100,000. So now, there's this enormous, like, three-to-one ratio. And those public relations people re there for a reason. They're there to basically—dominate what we think of public affairs issues their clients pay them to do, be it government or corporate. That's what we'll be getting.

BRANCACCIO: But what about—I mean, you have CNN, you have NBC news. You do have network news organizations that are trying to cover the political process. Are we not—are we giving them short shrift.

MCCHESNEY: I don't think so, unfortunately, because the—the—they've shred news reporters for the last decade or two dramatically. The trajectory for these is due south almost entirely. And the evidence here is they do very little journalism. As a rule, what they do is they pontificate about stories that real reporters—or actual paid reporters dig up, if that. But they don't generate stories on their own. And they shed a lot of light on stories that they pick out and cherry pick to discuss. And sometimes they're great stories, sometimes they're inane. But left to their own devices, they produce very little original journalism.

NICHOLS: Let me offer another notion on that as well. I appear on a number of those shows. And—and I'm always honored to be asked. But—but what I will tell you is this, they rarely have me come on to talk about a story that I've broken, or some big think I've done. They usually have me come on to say what I think about what the president's doing or—or somebody in congress is doing. Too often now, we're putting journalists in a situation of simply responding to what the politicians have done. This is a degeneration. It is not what the founders intended. The founders intended for us to have a free press in this country that scared politicians, that challenged them, that forced them to deal with things. Too often now, we're in a situation where our journalists are simply responding to our politicians. That's not healthy. Let me give you an example from—a huge example from—recent history in America. The 2000 Florida recount fight. Now, how did our media largely cover that? They put a Democrat on to say, "We should count these counties," they put a Republican on to say, "We should count these counties," and then back and forth arguing about that. Where was the independent journalism at the time it mattered? Where was—people goin' out and saying, no, there are ways to do this. We can get a credible result. We can find out who we elected president.

BRANCACCIO: But if the wonderful Arianna Huffington were here. She has Huffington Post. It started out as a kind of Drudge Report from the progressive side, and aggregator of other people's journalism. And they actually have some original journalism going forward. I'm sure she would argue that's the way of the future.

NICHOLS: Well, Arianna Huffington is—a brilliant entrepreneur. And we write very positively about her and what she's done in the book. But we don't have an Arianna Huffington in every town in America. Where the collapse is, is in communities across this country, where you used to have—a local daily newspaper and local media, that went out and cared, more than anything else about that town. We're losing the people that do that. And as that collapses, the whole fabric of our democratic and civic life, starting in the smallest town and going all the way up to the capital in Washington. That collapses.

BRANCACCIO: Even if you allow for innovation in the digital universe, you don't think there's a way the Internet can attract enough advertising dollars, the way that we've funded a lot of our private media over the last 100 years. You don't think there's gonna be enough advertising dollars to hire enough reporters?

MCCHESNEY: Absolutely not. In fact, I think the smart way to look at it historically, and what we do in our work is to view the advertising era as the anomaly, not as the rule. But we had this era for 100 years, roughly, where advertising put up the money to provide the best—majority revenues that paid for journalism in this country. It paid for it from the late 19th century on. And we assume that was the natural order. Now we're beginning to see, now that advertisers have other choices. They never had—were wed to the news. They're moving into other ways to reach their target audiences. They have no particular concern for the news. And we're entering a new era where we have to face up to the reality that journalism isn't a profitable enterprise. It's not something that can make a lot of money, once the advertisers leave. And if we're gonna have journalism, we have to face that truth and understand it as the founders of this republic did. It's a public good. It requires public subsidies or it won't exist.

BRANCACCIO: Public good, and from my economics training, this is something like—well, national security. We all need it. We all want someone else to pay for it. But even if someone else pays to do national security and have a military, I would still benefit. That's what a public good is.

MCCHESNEY: Journalism fits public good—really to a T. If we understand it that way, like national defense, like our founders understood it, and—and like public education and national parks, it's something that's mandatory for a healthy society. And then the discussion turns to, well, what sort of public subsidies can protect the core, liberal Democratic values we care about?

BRANCACCIO: Now in case anybody missed it, he just said really quickly public subsidies.


BRANCACCIO: That's government money for journalism.

NICHOLS: But—but look, public subsidies are not some sort of radical idea we're importing from someplace else. The government being involved in—

BRANCACCIO: A Communist place—

NICHOLS: —making sure—oh, of course, a really scary place. No, public—public engagement in making sure that we have the delivery of this public good is as American as apple pie. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, sat around in the early days of the republic—a republic that I might emphasize was founded, in large part, by journalists, people like Tom Paine—they sat around in the early days of the republic and said, "How do we create a civic and Democratic life that isn't just a reflection of Great Britain, of—of the colonial powers? The way we're going to do that is to make sure that we have many, many sources of information, that we have a competitive, free and independent, a wild, cacophonous media. And the way that's gonna happen is not by waiting for the quote-and-quote, 'market,' to give us that. We are going to do postal subsidies."

BRANCACCIO: Postal subsidies, for instance, in the early days of the republic, if you produced a newspaper. You could send it cheap to the U.S. postal system.

NICHOLS: Do you want to know how cheap?

BRANCACCIO: How cheap?

NICHOLS: They used—they had a great debate in Congress, one of the first great debates in the Congress of the United States, on how much you should charge to deliver daily newspapers. The more conservative folks, the kind of business types, said, "It should be the lowest rate, very, very low rate. You shouldn't—you should charge very, very little, because you don't want to, in any way, make it hard to do this." James Madison came forward and said, "No, no, no. That's—that's a crazy notion. That's a crazy, crazy notion. You shouldn't charge anything, because even the smallest charge is going to interrupt—this free flow of—of ideas and discussion and debate."

BRANCACCIO: The notion that the government would carry newspapers to people's homes for free, because it's so important to society.

NICHOLS: It's essential to democracy. You can't have a democracy when people aren't informed.

BRANCACCIO: Now there's other subsidies, right, in the old days—

MCCHESNEY: Well, the postal subsidy was the crucial one, because the post office, to give some sense—it distributed all newspapers. It was the distribution system for newspapers for 75 years in this country. And it—newspapers accounted for roughly 95 percent of the traffic and the weight, the weight of the post office, when only 12 percent of the revenues. That's how heavily subsidized newspapers were. There were other subsidies too, printing subsidies. In fact, the great newspapers of the early 19th century, the equivalent of the Washington Post and New York Times of our times, were subsidized by government printing contracts.

BRANCACCIO: But this didn't trouble our founding fathers, the founding fathers who are quite on the record as wanting to keep a distance between the government and the news media.

MCCHESNEY: No, in fact, that's one of the striking things about this era. At the same time, they understood that, you know, our free press tradition in this country has two parts and we've lost one of them. One part is the government should not censor news, which we all still hold dear. The government should not be involved in news selection. It should not monitor content. The other part is, you had to actually have a press system in the first place. And that was every bit as important. And that was the—those are the two components of our free press theory.

BRANCACCIO: But there's a connection, I mean, with—where the money flows, often that flows control.

NICHOLS: Let me tell you what—what happened here. You know, you'd think—you'd think that would be the case. Those subsidies, the postal subsidies especially, helped to foster the abolitionist press. The abolitionist press challenged the great sin of the founding of this republic. A time when in the U.S. Congress, that it was—it was not permitted to debate slavery. And so, we can have a dissident, challenging—anti-government press, operating within a system of subsidies. It is very possible. In fact, it happens in countries all over the world.

MCCHESNEY: And the contemporary examples we see that are striking about this come in Western Europe and Scandinavia, which have enormous printing subsidies similar in cash value to the early republic in this country—of public media, of journalism, of newspapers. And yet managed to have the freest commercial news—private news media in the world, according to Freedom House. I mean, these are the places you go for the least amount of government censorship, a private news media, is in the countries with the heaviest public subsidies of broadcasting and—media.

BRANCACCIO: There have been a lot of convocations of journalists wringing their hands about the problems we've been talking about. But—I want you two to fix this.

NICHOLS: One—one of the things we talk about is a voucher, where every citizen could spend, say, $200 on media. You could give your $200 to—not-for-profit community radio station. You could give your $200 to—Internet site that's covering your community. Something like that. And—

BRANCACCIO: A voucher of government money.

NICHOLS: Yeah, yeah, or you could—let's take a look at another model. You could write it off your taxes. You could give it and then—then deduct it from your taxes. But in some way or another, you can support—you can—you can support the media that you want, with the government of the United States backing that up, saying, you know, "Okay, you can do it," but not with the government of the United States telling you who to support. What—what we find is, in other countries around the world, models like this can work. And in fact, they generally create a much more diverse, much more competitive media.

BRANCACCIO: Robert, not to be a jerk here, but, like, facing the choice of giving a voucher to the non-profit version of High Times Magazine or—local government, what they're up, you think that substantial journalism could win in the end?

MCCHESNEY: I'm positive it will and the primary reason is that it's gonna be non-commercial and non-profit. I mean, if you look at the, sort of, TMZ sort of stuff, this is all commercial stuff. And that commercial sector will still exist. People can still get all the commercial journalism they want. So, if you're giving to a website—to a news organization that's non-profit, it's non-commercial and everything it produces goes automatically up on the web for free distribution, it's in the public domain, I think that, alone, will weed out 95 percent of the sensational stuff, which is all profit-drive, it's all commercial. If you strip out the need to make as much money as quickly as possible then I think you strip out—a lion's share of the sensationalism and the idiocy.

NICHOLS: We talked to editors of the major daily newspapers in Great Britain, in particular The Guardian, which is viewed as—a quality daily with some of the best web content in the world, a paper that a lot of Americans read on the web. And—and I asked them, you know, why are you so good, you know, why is—why is what you do so high standard. They said, well, you know, we're—we're in the commercial sector but we're competing with the BBC. And my—my—

BRANCACCIO: Government-funded BBC?

NICHOLS: That's exactly right. My sense is that if we get in—that—that if we start to really get serious about this, we will raise the quality of the commercial sector as well.

BRANCACCIO: But you're asking us to go back 140 years. If you go back 50 and 100 years, what you have is a rich tradition in this country of privately owned media. And right now, just hearing this, I can just imagine newspaper publishers and TV network news executives just having a myocardial infarction hearing you talk about this.

MCCHESNEY: Well, those that still have jobs, that will have that. But—but the problem is that most of them are becoming in a place where their employees are not working. And that I think they're gonna look around for a credible explanation of their problem, rather than a mythical one, and a solution to it.

NICHOLS: And in communities across the country, I think there's tremendous evidence of people who are desperate to—to know about their towns. And we have an economic crisis in this country, towns that are—that are really suffering. People want to stay in their communities. They wanna love their communities. They wanna build them back up. Well, they're not going to be able to do that unless they really have serious journalism on the ground that tells them, you know, what the possibilities are and what the challenges are.

MCCHESNEY: And the key thing is rather than trying to produce a product, then sell it online and try to wall off the Internet and put a barb wire everywhere. That's not working. That can't work. Instead, let's pay people at the front end, produce really good stuff and make it available to all, make it democratic. And that's what we're trying to get out with the voucher idea. It would be highly competitive. It would be well-funded. And the government wouldn't control who got the money.

BRANCACCIO: But I did notice, as a former business reporter your headline number of what you think it could cost a year. It something like you calculate $30 billion a year, into journalism?

MCCHESNEY: Well, what was striking to us, we went back and looked at the size of the public subsidy—that the U.S. government had for journalism in the first half of the 19th century, and if we had the same percentage of—of GDP today, of dedicated new journalism subsidy as they did in the United States routinely in the first 75 years of our country's history, it would be roughly $30 billion. Then we looked at nations like Sweden—Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany. And we looked at the amount of subsidy they did, today, for public media and for journalism, countries that all rank usually above us on democracy indexes by The Economist and other sources, in terms of public participation and freedom. And their numbers come, if you translate them to the American population, roughly $30 billion too. So there seems to be—this is sort of the number of a free society pays to have credible journalism. And that strikes us as a pretty sane number. Now that's only, what, one, five percent of what we spend on military, if that. Maybe 3 percent depending on..

BRANCACCIO: You'd want to pay for it somehow. I mean, we can't just print the money for it—

MCCHESNEY: I mean, there's two ways to look at the—the cost factor. On one hand, we view journalism and the free press like the founders, and like I think democracy should. It's not something you try to get on the cheap. It's something you have to have, or the constitutional system doesn't work. You know, we don't—when we're being invaded by another country, we don't say, "Well, can we afford to fight back?" You fight back and worry about the cost later. But when you're losing your information system so you can govern your society, you don't say, "Well, gee, can we really afford that?" It's like you don't exist if you can't afford it. The second point, though, is that at the same time, the crucial policy issues, you do want to have a segregated form of funding, so politicians can't get their hands on it. So—so some committee chair in the Senate can't come in and say, "Well, I like that newspaper in my town or that website. I'm gonna funnel them a lot of money and—and zero out the money to this guy who's criticizing me."

BRANCACCIO: Now, John, people who watch us right now self-select for people who use public television.


BRANCACCIO: Public media. Public radio, public digital. Maybe that was the solution all along. We have these nonprofit organizations set up that try to operate in the public interest, with some background in covering the news. Maybe that's the way forward.

NICHOLS: Well, it's a part of it. There's simply no question. And one of the biggest problems in America is that we dramatically underfund and under-commit to public media and to community media. This country provides—such—a drop in the bucket of support for this kind of communication, as compared to every other country that we would compare ourselves to or—or hope to be better than in the world. And so most Americans don't have an understanding of public broadcasting in the way that they should. Public broadcasting should have multiple channels and multiple options, multiple choices. The bottom line here is that in our discussion about how to create a media landscape that sustains civic life and democracy, our biggest failure is that we nickel-and-dime it, that we look too narrowly. We have too few senses of what we can do. And what we're talking about here is the sustenance of democracy.

BRANCACCIO: But, Bob—as a test case over decades of—of government partial funding for the media—public media doesn't get as much government money as people think, but it gets some, it has been an uneven relationship with government over the years. There have been times—this program—experienced this a number of years ago where government officials try to meddle.

MCCHESNEY: Absolutely. A healthy, vibrant public media system sets really firm, structural barriers to prevent political meddling. We never set those sufficiently. And the funding is so nebulous, and the broadcasters are so poor, that they can't afford to offend—the government in a way that a healthy, strong, independent broadcaster like you'd find in Denmark or Norway or Sweden or Britain, would never fear the national government.

BRANCACCIO: Now, I know the two of you are well aware of what you're up against when advocating a major government subsidy to save journalism. But let me just point out one that disturbs me, which is if you ask the American people about what worries them going forward, they'll say things like national security, crime in the street, or perhaps, most often, I want a job. The problem with journalism in America is gonna show up as, like, number 5,263 on that list of things people will state are problems that need to be solved.

NICHOLS: We're a couple hundred years into this experiment. Maybe we oughta pull the break and have a national discussion about how do we have a real democracy, how do we have a country that—that isn't a mirror of the colonial states that—that we broke away from. If we have that discussion, the first thing that I think most Americans are gonna say is look if I'm going to be central to this set of choices about—what my country is going to be, I'm gonna need information. And I'm gonna need a lot of information. I'm gonna want it from different sources. And so, I think any thinking American will say, I want journalism. I want a lot of it. I want it competitive. I want it independent. I really do believe that Americans are hungry for news. We've just been starved for too long.

BRANCACCIO: Well, John Nichols, Robert McChesney, authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism, thank you very much.

NICHOLS: Thank you.

MCCHESNEY: Our pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: Alright, should journalism be next on line for a government bailout? Let us know what you think by answering that very question on our website's weekly q. is the best place to start.
And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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