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McChesney's argument: Commercial journalism is dead; subsidies, not billionaires, needed


Robert McChesney is a media scholar who's work goes beyond the academy. A co-founder of the non-profit FreePress.net (Free Press staffer Josh Stearns is with us at RJI Five), McChesney is a prolific book writer on the rise and fall of journalism. One of his most frequent refrains is that the Founding Fathers intended postal subsidies for circulating newspapers as a recognition of the "public good" function of journalism. Why, McChesney asks, shouldn't that be one option for sustaining journalism? Nonsense, say some journalists, who argue that financial independence from the government is necessary to the practice of fierce watchdog reporting on government. How can we move beyond such a binary argument? Here is a recent summary by McChesney of his view, from a July 8, 2013 interview on the program "Democracy Now" during a discussion about Jeff Bezos' impending purchase of the Washington Post

ROBERT McCHESNEY: "Well, I think that the absurdity is that we’re reduced to the point where journalism is dying in this country as an undertaking supported by commercial enterprise, and we’re reduced with these monopoly franchises to hopefully get a good billionaire, relative to the Koch brothers, for example. But we should stand back and understand how ridiculous the situation is, that we’re reduced to this pathetic state of affairs, because we really actually need real journalism. We need journalism that tells us about war plans, that tells us about the NSA, long before it becomes too late or deep into the game. And we’re not getting that now, and there’s no reason to think the current system is going to give us that. It’s incredibly corrupt.

"It’s worth noting that we have a system like the one we have now a hundred years ago in the United States. If you were to look at American journalism in between 1900 and 1915, it had grown incredibly concentrated except in our very largest cities. There were huge empires, and the Hearsts, the Pulitzers, the Scrippses—the bosses of that era—used their power to actively and aggressively promote their politics, their generally right-wing, anti-labor politics. And it was a result of that period that there was a great crisis of journalism that led to the creation of professional journalism, the idea that the editorial content should not be influenced directly by the owners and the advertisers. And we’re going back to that era, except for we’re doing it without any resources, and there’s even less accountability, far less, than there was then. There’s—you know, in those days, there were four, five, six, eight major daily newspapers in each of our great cities, like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago. Today we don’t have anything like that . . .

"Well, I think the—a lesson that’s clear from this is that we’ve had the illusion that journalism is a commercially viable undertaking for the last hundred years in the United States, and that was because advertising provided between 50 and 100 percent of all the revenues to support commercial journalism, and it made it very profitable throughout the 20th century, especially monopoly markets, which most of them gravitated toward. But now journalism has gone digital, and it’s turning to smart advertising. It no longer provides revenue for content for journalism, and that’s never going to come back. We’re not going to have commercial journalism.

"And I think we have to then go back to the beginning of the republic. What did we do the first hundred years, before there was advertising in any significant levels for journalism? Well, what we had then to make sure there was a popular press was enormous postal and printing subsidies. We wouldn’t have had an Abolitionist press without it. We wouldn’t have had a daily press serving the masses without those postal subsidies, which effectively made newspaper distribution at that time all but free for these papers, nominal. And we’ve got to think in those terms again. If we look at the most democratic countries in the world, ranked by The Economist magazine, they all spend inordinate amounts of money supporting public and community media, supporting multiple newspapers and newsrooms in communities. They make a strong public investment in nonprofit, noncommercial journalism—independent nonprofit, noncommercial journalism. And that’s how you solve the problem. That’s a discussion that we’re eventually going to have to have in this country, the sooner the better.