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Should the government support journalism?

Posted at 10:48 AM on January 29, 2008 by Jon Gordon

Today on Future Tense (RealAudio - MP3 - iTunes) I began a two-parter on the idea that as the Internet accelerates the economic problems of mainstream journalism, the government should provide subsidies in an effort to protect the public interest.

The first part is an interview with Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Here's a transcript:

LEMANN: Direct subsidies to me would be kind of a last resort. And if you did them what you'd want is to build in very strong safeguards to preserve the journalistic independence. But I will say that does exist pretty well in other realms. I happen to be on the board of the National Academy of Science, and that's a great example. It's a truly trustworthy organization that is government-funded but often attacks the government. The National Institutes of Health is another example. National Science Foundation is another example. The BBC in Britain is another example. So you can build walls meant to protect the folks getting the grant.

wavLength: What are the options short of direct government subsidies to news organizations?

LEMANN: There's the whole realm of nonprofit. When Paul Steiger starts ProPublica, which is nonprofit and therefore tax-advantaged in the contributions it gets from its donors and therefore is a recipient of an implicit government subsidy ... It intends to produce investigative reporting that it then will sell to for-profit, prominent news organizations. I would call that an indirect government subsidy of journalism.

wavLength: What is it exactly that needs saving? Are we talking about long-form journalism? There's plenty of media out there.

LEMANN: It's not just long-form journalism. It's journalism concerned with public policy matters. Public affairs or politics is not the most market-supported part of journalism. ESPN does not need any help. Ditto for celebrity journalism. But there's lots of parts of journalism that have a tremendous social value that it's very hard to find anywhere that they are truly market-supported.

wavLength: Opponents of this kind of government support for journalism argue vociferously that it's really a crazy idea because your are opening yourself up to control by the government, and control of the free press is anathema to our system.

LEMANN: Funding doesn't have to equal control. It just doesn't. Look at public radio and public TV. They've been around for a generation or even two generations and they're not controlled by the government. They're just not. Yes, there are these battles that go on inevitably ... but if you do the overall cost benefit analysis, my God, there's just no question in my mind about which is better for journalism and which is better for the public.

Coming soon, a conversation with the head of the journalism school at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, Ralph Whitehead, Jr., who opposes government support of journalism.