Journalism execs just say no to government bailout

At least for the moment, and it may be the only point of agreement they have with conservatives on line.  Only 19% of news executives say they would support government subsidies for news organizations, with almost 90% of those from newspapers opposing them.  What they told Pew is the same arguments conservatives have made about corporatist policies infecting supposedly objective news organizations:

The idea that draws the most concern is accepting money from interest groups that engage in advocacy of some kind. Nearly eight-in-ten surveyed (78%) had serious concerns about donations from groups of this sort. That can be a murkier line than it sounds. Some groups that fund advocacy can also fund groups that are educational. How much direct link can there be? If the organization is different but the funding source is the same, does that amount to interest group money? Such questions are harder to resolve.

There was a similar level of overarching concern about accepting government money. Fully 75% of all news executives surveyed—and 88% of newspaper executives—said they had “serious reservations,” or the highest level of concern, about direct subsidies from the government. And about half (46%) have that level of concern over tax credits for news organizations. There was somewhat less reservation over tax credits directed at news consumers, with 38% having serious reservations and 24% saying they are neutral. Still, even in these dire economic times, only 19% would welcome such funding.

There are bills in the Senate and House that would allow news organizations to accept individual nonprofit donations from private citizens, in the way that public radio and TV stations generate much of their revenue. News executives, however, seem to view this prospect as something of a slippery slope. Fully 39% have serious reservations about them, about half as many as with government subsidies, but another 31% have “some reservations.” Only two-in-ten would welcome or be enthusiastic about such revenue. And, going back to what they are actually trying at the moment, fully 74% say their organizations haven’t even begun to consider such an option.

Why? The arguments from advocates rely on the idea that a free press is necessary for a truly free democracy (or, more accurately, a democratic republic), and that in this sense newspapers really are “too big to fail.” So far, the newspapers themselves aren’t biting:

News executives were often passionate in their reactions, both pro and con. “If the government becomes the ‘money bags’ for journalism, journalism will become the ‘bag man’ for the government,” wrote a member of RTDNA. “This would be an assault to the first amendment of the constitution.”

“We must keep our independence or perception of independence and accepting government subsidies ties you to the government we are meant to watch,” explained an ASNE member, “The lines become too blurred if we begin taking donations and subsidies. Even if we remain aggressive in coverage why would readers believe we are independent?”

And another simply wrote, “Government involvement in any form is a terrible idea. Ultimately, we either need to provide what people want or we go out of business.”

In fact, in almost every model that didn’t include producing a product that people want to buy in large enough quantities to survive, news executives expressed significant levels of discomfort for subsidized news reporting. More than three-quarters had serious reservations about interest groups subsidizing news outlets with grants and/or donations; even private donations got 41% of newspaper executives uncomfortable.  Why?  As the comments above reflect, these executives understand that he who pays the piper calls the tune.  Subsidized journalism will get seen as advocacy journalism, no matter how careful organizations are about ethics.  No newspaper that relies on Greenpeace donations would challenge global-warming theories, for instance, even if their reports on climate change legislation played it down the middle.

That doesn’t mean they’re not worried about their industry’s survival, though, as Danny Glover points out:

The news executives are concerned about the future of journalism as a profitable profession. Nearly a third (29 percent) think their news organizations could be insolvent within five years. Add the 18 percent who give their companies 10 years of survival, and nearly half of news executives clearly are pessimistic about the future.

But they still have the sense to realize that the FCC and FTC, two agencies actively weighing government intervention in the media sector, is the wrong solution.

Hopefully the bureaucrats will listen to the news executives whose careers are at stake and stay out of the way as media firms continue to experiment with local search products, micro news and other revenue models outlined in the survey.

Or, in the words of one executive who responded with comments, “Want to raise revenue? Produce a quality product.”

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