In May, Free Press released a report titled Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy. The 48-page document is the most intelligent and comprehensive proposed solution to the crisis in journalism that I have seen, and I urge everyone to read it. The report begins by setting forth its highest priorities in devising a national journalism strategy, including protecting the First Amendment, promoting government accountability, producing quality news coverage, and encouraging innovation. With those principles in mind, the report outlines and critiques a host of proposed solutions, covering everything from micro-payments to a wholesale government bailout. Ultimately, Free Press proposes a multi-faceted approach to addressing the crisis, which blends expansive government funding for public media with legal and tax incentives to promote new ownership and alternative models.
The detailed report is especially compelling because it manages to avoid the two most common pitfalls – Free Press neither seeks to preserve the traditional institutions at all costs, nor does it naively believe the Internet will effortlessly fill the void of newsgathering and reporting previously filled largely by newspapers. Unfortunately, this middle ground is rarely taken in the public debate. Most proposed solutions either call for major sacrifices to free speech or Internet freedom to preserve a dying revenue model, or they simply instruct us to have faith that the replacement to traditional journalism will come naturally over time.
Instead, Free Press recognizes the most important lesson we should have learned from this crisis – that we cannot leave the fate of the Fourth Estate to market forces. This not only means we cannot expect media conglomerates to uphold the public interest when acting under relaxed antitrust laws, but it also means we should not wait around until someone discovers a lucrative economic model for online news (something I assume will happen eventually). We should not squander this opportunity to invest in journalism that is dictated by its purpose of informing the public, rather than profit.
We also cannot realistically expect citizen journalists to completely shoulder the burden of being the public watchdogs. As I have written before, reporting does not require specialized training, but it does require resources. The Internet has undoubtedly enriched our public discourse in countless ways, but it is unrealistic to believe that unpaid writers will have the time and money to take on a beat, let alone to report from the frontlines of the war in Afghanistan. The essential function of professional journalism – i.e. full-time reporting – is a public good, and it is critical to a healthy democracy. For once, we should make this public good a national priority.