Subsidized Journalism? Not Funny

July 20, 2010

For immediate release (708 words)

“If the press is stopped and the people kept in ignorance, we had much better have the first magistrate and senators hereditary.” — John Adams

A delegation from Izvestia sat in our conference room one afternoon in the late 1970s as the long-running regime of Leonid Brezhnev came to a close. They were eager to tell us why Soviet journalism was better than ours.

Their presentation went something like this: We have the only truly free press; you are dependent on advertisers and subscribers. We can write whatever we want to further mankind for the good of all, not for just for the rich.

Today that view survives at — of all places — the nation’s richest journalism school, Columbia University. The president there, Dr. Lee Bollinger, blames the troubles of the large daily newspapers on technological innovations and resulting market shifts. He proposes as remedy a new model of government-subsidized American journalism.

Our Soviet journalists would not find Bollinger’s model all that new. It would look a lot like their daily Izvestia, also government subsidized, also free of capitalist whim in the form of crass advertising or fickle subscribers — but full of institutionally driven “news” and politically skewed analysis.

Let us step into an alternate reality. It is the work of another expert on journalism, Dr. Marvin Olasky, now editor of World Magazine and formerly a professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism.

Dr. Olasky’s writings tell us that the journalism Dr. Bollinger would save, the journalism predominate in our largest markets today, is itself a recent model — the monopoly version of one first constructed at the turn of the 20th century by Joseph Pulitzer and other so-called “muckrakers.”

Moreover, the Internet is not the critical factor here. Look at the all-important market penetration charts. Two decades ago the large newspapers, secure in monopoly, abandoned en masse their constitutional charge, i.e., the difficult and expensive job of digging up facts to provide a check on the powerful.

Instead, they sought to instruct and improve their readerships through application of higher social and political sensitivity — cut-rate propagandizing, if you will. Market penetration began to decline accordingly, decades before the Internet took hold.

How can anybody be surprised we don’t want to pay for that, whether it be print or digital?

In this new school of journalism, Olasky explains, problems arise not from personal corruption but from external influences: “The role of (this new) journalist is to put a spotlight on those influences. The hope is that if man’s environment is changed, man himself changes, and poverty, war, and so on, are no more.”

Again, it is a tough sale, as the decline of big-time journalism attests, The market for social and political lecturing is exceedingly small among the non-masochistic. And that brings us to a critical point that escapes Bollinger entirely.

The death of the New York Times or even our beloved Indianapolis Star would not result in a net decline in the necessary, prescient information that has characterized successful American journalism since Ben Franklin.

Indeed, an information system modeled, say, after the Wall Street Journal,  the <<Organization>>, or even your brother-in-law’s blog might well step into any market void with a more successful business plan and editorial philosophy.  

The Wall Street Journal, perhaps the last traditional major newspaper left, continues to add subscribers both in print and on line. There is the inarguable success of Fox News with its more traditional “fair and balanced” approach.

And publishers of the smaller community newspapers and media systems throughout the nation were out-performing the big shots until the  recession hit Main Street, their closeness to their readerships saving them from the hubris of advocacy journalism.

Our gifts to the Soviet delegation that day included Mark Twain’s classic short story “Journalism in Tennessee.” There is a passage where the editor-in-chief, a fiercely independent fellow in the tradition of American newsrooms, gives his young assistant the schedule for the day:

“Jones will be here at three — cowhide him. Gillespie will call earlier, perhaps — throw him out of the window. Ferguson will be along about four — kill him. The cowhides are under the table; weapons in the drawer; ammunition there in the corner; lint and bandages up there in the pigeonholes. In case of accident, go to Lancet, the surgeon, downstairs. He advertises — we take it out in trade.”

The humor was lost on our Russian visitors — as it is, we suspect, on Dr. Bollinger.

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T. Craig Ladwig, editor of The Indiana Policy Review, has worked 40 years in newsrooms, small and large, writing on journalism reform for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the Kansas City Star and Editor & Publisher. Contact him at cladwig@inpolicy.org.



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