Five years ago I could pick up the classified section of my local paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and actually feel some substance to it. Today, even the Sunday classifieds are silicon wafer thin.
It’s nothing new to report – the Internet has wreaked havoc with media budgets nationwide. Community newspapers, for instance, used to derive about 10 percent of their annual revenue from public notices. Today, cash-starved state and local governments simply go online and publish themselves, effectively cutting out the community newspaper as ‘middleman.’
And the media continues to be directly/indirectly impacted from other government funding sources – the Nieman Journalism Lab reported that postal subsidies were worth $1.97 billion in the mid-1960s (in 2009 dollars). Today they have shrunk by more than 75 percent to $288 million. A postal fee hike last year, for example, cost The Nation more than $500,000 in mailing costs last year – not exactly good news when the magazine reportedly bled more than $300,000 in red ink.
Is there a solution? Most would agree that free speech and free press are sacrosanct and also essential to a healthy U.S. economy. Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, recently postulated one interesting scenario – enhanced public funding for journalism.
It’s not a new concept – public broadcasting, according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, is, in the aggregate, funded 40 percent by various government entities. In fact, Bollinger reported that both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have initiated studies of ways to ensure that the economic pickle facing newspapers and broadcast news doesn’t deprive Americans of important information they need as citizens.
Bollinger said Americans already depend to some extent on publicly funded foreign news media for a lot of international news – “especially through broadcasts of the BBC and BBC World Service on PBS and NPR. Such news comes to us courtesy of British citizens who pay a TV license fee to support the BBC and taxes to support the World Service.”
He added that this type of state support hasn’t resulted in official control – “the reliable public funding structure, as well as a set of professional norms that protect editorial freedom, has yielded a highly respected and globally powerful journalistic institution.”
Bollinger believes top priority should be given to strengthening America’s public broadcasting role globally. The federal government’s two international broadcasters, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, for instance, can’t even broadcast within the U.S. – an anachronistic Cold War policy.
“The goal would be an American broadcasting system with full journalistic independence that can provide the news we need,” Bollinger said.
Sounds good to me.