A modest proposal for federal funding of journalism

Joel Kramer, special to the Pulitzer Center

As the profits and the number of journalists employed in mainstream media continue to shrink, should the federal government step in to help sustain local public-affairs journalism?

In a report released today, former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Columbia University professor Michael Schudson say yes. It's one of many suggestions that they make, but it figures to be the most controversial one. To a lot of journalists, taking money from the government would be an outrageous conflict of interest and an invitation to improper pressure on newsgathering.

Downie and Schudson propose that federal money (from taxes on telecommunications or Internet service providers) be distributed the way National Endowment for the Humanities money is distributed locally: through state-level councils that review and decide on applications for the funding. The funding would not be for specific stories, but for broader, longer-range innovations in newsgathering and organizational sustainability. Even so, it's easy to imagine that that process could become highly politicized.

Unlike some of my colleagues in the journalism profession, I'm open to the idea of some federal funding for journalism, especially at the local and regional level, where the decline of the old business model is doing the most damage. Government funding need not lead to de-fanging the watchdog: look at the quality of the news operation of the BBC. But I think there's a better way than having councils consider grant applications and dole out funds.

Earlier this year, I teamed up with Jon Sawyer, of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, to write a paper for a Duke University conference, in which we proposed a donor collaborative for nonprofit journalism. (PDF here.) The idea was simple: Instead of asking everyone interested in supporting this cause to vet every possible recipient, let's invite donors to collaborate on a fund that will match donations already made to eligible journalism enterprises. This would ensure that money was being directed to efforts that (a) had demonstrated community support, and (b) were on their way toward sustaining their enterprises through their own fundraising success.

Why not just have government funding of journalism distributed that way - by matching voluntary donations that journalism enterprises are able to gather in their own communities, both from individuals and foundations? This would funnel the money to enterprises that are demonstrating that they have community support.

Under such a system, there would be no politics involved in the decision-making. There would be no accusations that the administration is favoring one ideology or using its clout to reward or punish. And the matching funds would make it a lot more attractive for local news organizations to ask their readers or viewers for voluntary support. It costs money to raise money, but if the money you raise will be matched, it becomes a better use of an organization's limited resources.

What do you think? Should the federal government support public-affairs journalism? Should journalism enterprises be willing to take the money? If so, how should the dollars be distributed?

Originally published Oct. 19 on