The news media is awash in articles lamenting the sorry state of journalism. The problem is: according to the relentless logic of the marketplace, the return on investment from funding traditional newsrooms is too low to justify their continued existence. Furthermore, because of the Internet, content can now be accessed for free and ad revenues are no longer sufficient to subsidize substantial news gathering. Yet America needs a diverse, independent press to act as a watchdog on both government and the private sector.
In this article I argue that the decline of privately funded journalism is to be expected; I present the case for public funding of journalism; and, perhaps most importantly, I address libertarian objections to such public funding,
Journalism as a public good
Americans have taken it for granted that privately held news organizations would devote sufficient resources to investigative journalism. But is it reasonable to rely on the good will of private. for-profit news corporations to perform the very necessary service of investigative journalism?
Even in the days before the Internet, when newspapers made good money, investigative journalism emerged serendipitously and quite unreliably as a by-product of the real products in demand: entertainment, classified ads, gossip, and financial information.
As a society, we delegate responsibility for public safety and the courts to specialized public servants who are expected to uphold high standards of professionalism and objectivity. We pay police, prosecutors and judges to ferret out the facts and apply the law impartially. Investigative journalism is equally essential to the well-being of society, and we shouldn't expect for-profit private corporations to find the truth about news either. Journalists, like police and judges, should be shielded from commercial considerations.
A well-funded, independent press is a public good, akin to police protection, courts, transit, national defense, childhood immunization, clean air, and banking regulations. For such public goods, for which the benefits accrue to everyone, a market-based approach is infeasible, since allowing people the choice not to contribute would undermine the system: people would 'free-load' and rely on other people to pay for it. Consequently, government tax revenues should be used to fund news gathering and investigative journalism, and we should construct a wall separating public funding from political interference.
The overstated risks of political interference
The standard argument against government funded journalism is that there are risks of political interference. But as argued by Richard Baker in How to Save the News, "There are numerous democratic nations with public broadcasting systems that are both well funded by their central government and also well shielded from its political influence." Indeed, " Better funding for All Things Considered on NPR or NewsHour on PBS will not turn either program into a propaganda outfit for the government. The BBC is not Pravda , and Japan and most of Europe, which have enjoyed extremely well-funded public media for decades, are not a network of totalitarian states. "