News-apocalypse -- a government bailout?


David Scharfenberg, ex of the ProJo, had a red-letter day yesterday, offering a good profile of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung on WRNI and publishing a much-discussed op-ed, on a possible government bailout for journalism -- in the Boston Globe.

The cuts [like those that claimed his job at the Journal] have short-term implications, of course. School committee meetings will go uncovered, State House scandals unreported. But they also threaten the long-term health of journalism: With little hope for a resurgence, the generation that might reinvent a dying craft is simply leaving the news business behind.

But there are ways to keep young journalists employed and, more importantly, to preserve the sort of journalism that keeps our democracy afloat.

Some have suggested changes in tax law that would make it easier for philanthropies to buy major news outlets, others favor a National Endowment for Journalism that newspapers could tap to pay for the investigative and international reporting now getting short-shrift.

But we need something bigger. Congress, intent on jump-starting the economy, should set aside $100 million - well under 1 percent of the stimulus approved by the House of Representatives and pending in the Senate - for a national journalism fund.

The cash would seed low-cost, Internet-based news operations in cities large and small - combining vigorous, professional reporting with blogging, video posts, citizen journalism, and aggregation of stories from other sources.

The sites would build on an emerging nonprofit news model that may be our best hope for preserving serious reporting. In California, the scrappy has unearthed all manner of municipal folly. MinnPost in the Twin Cities is doing similar work. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting set up shop at Boston University last month.

My former colleague Dan Kennedy thinks Scharfenberg's idea is off the mark:

At least he's not proposing taxpayer money for legacy media organizations such as the Journal or the Globe. Still, his survey of successful independent projects such as Pro Publica and Voice of San Diego suggests that his idea is a solution in search of a problem.

Maybe I'm just being paranoid. But I can't imagine anything more contrary to the idea of watchdog journalism than funding it with government money.

Tax incentives? Maybe, and I'm going to wrestle with that idea in my column for the Guardian this week. But direct government aid? Never.

If you visit Voice of San Diego, you'll see this: "an independent nonprofit." Not if Scharfenberg's idea catches on.

The best minds in media have yet to design a new commercial model for sustaining journalism, so it's worth talking up different ideas.

And while I'm inclined to agree with Kennedy's belief that funding serious reporting with government dollars is a non-starter, the reference reminded me of a query made by former Boston mayor Kevin White when I was a student in a poli-sci class he taught at BU:

Could a government-supported media entity perform credible, independent-minded reporting?

We students thought it was a bad idea.

Well, he said, what about the BBC?

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