Can we steer people toward hard news — and get them to financially support it — through the use of “news vouchers” or “public interest vouchers”? That’s the subject of this latest installment in my ongoing series on proposals to have the government play a greater role in the media sector in the name of sustaining struggling enterprises or “saving journalism.”
As I mentioned here previously, last week I testified at the FCC’s first “Future of Media” workshop on “Serving the Public Interest in the Digital Era.” (@3:29 mark of video). It was a great pleasure to testify alongside the all-star cast there that day, which included the always-provocative Jeff Jarvis of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He delivered some very entertaining remarks and vociferously pushed back against many of the ideas that others were suggesting about “saving journalism.” Jeff is a very optimistic guy–far more optimistic than me, in fact–about the prospect that new media and citizen journalism will help fill whatever void is left by the death of many traditional media operators and institutions. He had a lively exchange with Srinandan Kasi, Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of the Associated Press, that is worth watching (somewhere after the 5-hour mark on the video).
Nonetheless, Jarvis is a enough of a realist to know that it has always been difficult to find resources to fund hard news, which he creatively refers to as “broccoli journalism.” This is what is keeping the FCC, the FTC (workshop today), and many media worrywarts up at night; the fear that as traditional financing mechanisms falter (advertising, classifieds, subscription revenues, etc) many traditional news-gathering efforts and institutions will disappear. Of course, while it is certainly true we are in the midst of a gut-wrenching media revolution with a great deal of creative destruction taking place, it is equally true that exciting new media business models and opportunities are developing. We shouldn’t over look that, as I argued here and here.
Anyway, a lot of different proposals are being put forth by scholars and policymakers to find new ways to finance news-gathering or “save journalism.” One of the ideas that has been gaining some steam as of late is the idea of crafting a “public interest voucher” or what Robert W. McChesney & John Nichols, authors of the new book The Death and Life of American Journalism, call a “Citizenship News Voucher.” And McChesney discussed this idea in more detail when he spoke at today’s FTC event on saving journalism. The idea is fairly straightforward: Give every American a voucher (McChesney and Nichols propose $200) to donate money to the non-profit news entity of their choice. The assumption is that this would be an efficient and safe way of channeling money to “broccoli journalism” while avoiding the serious concerns that arise when government officials or agencies are the ones steering the subsidies. McChesney and Nichols go so far as to call the notion “a libertarian’s dream” since “people can support whatever political viewpoint they prefer or do nothing at all.”
Before I critique this notion, let me just reiterate that I am sympathetic to the concern here since I began my life with a journalism degree and I’m a true lover of broccoli journalism. I certainly eat my greens when it comes to news. I’m a National Public Radio supporter and have given $10 per month ($120 per year) to my local NPR affiliate for awhile now. That’s more than I spend on almost any other media product with the exception of my almost two-decade subscription to the Wall Street Journal. And I also subscribe to The Washington Post, National Geographic, and a number of other “broccoli journalism” products. (I gave up my Economist subscription several years ago, which was also quite pricey). I make this investment because I personally love hard news and believe these media entities offer the very best of it.
Nonetheless, the “news voucher” proposal has several problems and is going to fail once implemented anyway.
First, McChesney and Nichols want to sell this scheme as “a libertarian’s dream,” but that’s utter rubbish. I don’t know of any libertarian who dreams of sending more money to the federal government only to win back the right to spend it on “qualifying media entities.” And when they say that “people can support whatever political viewpoint they prefer or do nothing at all,” well, last time I checked people were already free to do whatever they want with their money when it comes to media products! Why do we need to send it to Washington first?
And analogies to educational vouchers don’t work because we long ago decided to treat education as a public good and force everyone to pay for it. Vouchers are only sensible when we absolutely have to force people to spend money on public goods; they help make government spending a tad bit more efficient. While McChesney and Nichols claim in their book that the time has come to treat media as such a public good, most people would not agree, since the private provision of media services has worked quite well for some time—being funded by a mix of advertising and subscription revenues for centuries. They claim that era is over but, as I’ll note below and in a future essay about their book, it is their policies that would end private media by taxing and regulating it to death.
Second, what exactly counts as a “qualifying media entity,” and who makes that call? Can just anybody draw support from this program if they claim to be a “media entity”? Are we going to let people redeem their vouchers on The National Inquirer or People magazine? How about The Onion? Or how about blogs like this one! “This is a risk we are more than willing to take,” McChesney & Nichols say since they are “operating on a gut instinct that people will use their vouchers to fund serious media while reaching into their pockets to pay for copies of The National Inquirer at the supermarket checkout.” (p. 205) Of course, it’s always easier to take such risks when you are playing with other people’s money! But they are fools to believe this idea is going to change the face of journalism in any serious way. The majority of people will spend their vouchers on whatever media outlets and content they are currently consuming, which probably isn’t want McChesney & Nichols (or policymakers) would prefer.
This raises a third concern: How long will it be before government starts attaching more strings to the vouchers? To borrow a headline from The Wall Street Journal from earlier this week, how long will it be before the “Economic Policy ‘Nudge’ Gives Way to a Shove?” This “Nudge” notion is popular in DC these days with the Obama crew thanks to Cass Sunstein’s book of the same name (w/Richard Thaler). But, as I’ve said here before, such “nudging” is rife with elitism since some policymakers imagine they can steer the public’s tastes or behavior in more desirable directions through law. The problem is, some people just don’t much like being nudged by officials from afar and they’ll often take steps to evade it. In this context, there is simply no way to get people to consume what you want it in an age of abundance. I talked about this problem at length in my testimony to the FCC last week. You just can’t make people watch, listen, or read if they don’t want to. As Ellen P. Goodman of the Rutgers-Camden School of Law has noted: “Given the proliferation of consumer filtering and choice, these kinds of interventions are of questionable efficacy. Consumers equipped with digital selection and filtering tools are likely to avoid content they do not demand no matter what the regulatory efforts to force exposure.” Moreover, she rightly argues, “regulation cannot, in a liberal democracy, force viewers to consumer media products they do not think they want in the name of the public interest.” Amen, sister.
So, even though, in theory, the news voucher idea lets consumers figure out how to steer the funds, I sincerely doubt that most of those funds will go toward “broccoli journalism” and other civic-minded content. And once people start redirecting taxpayer dollars to all sorts of silly stuff that the elites and policymakers don’t like, that’s when the nudge will become a shove and more interventions will follow in the form of “voucher guidance and compliance” hearings, rules, etc. In essence, you can file this all under the “if you build it they will come” theory of public policy. But, in this case, it’s all wishful thinking because you simply can’t force people to spend money (or pay attention) to things they don’t want to.
There’s final problematic caveat to the McChesney-Nichols variant of the news voucher idea: They would disallow any copyright protection or advertising support for an entity who receives voucher funds. That’s an effort by the authors to steer even more media activity away from the commercial sphere and toward “the public option” for the press. Let’s not forget that McChesney has argued (during this interview the Canadian-based “Socialist Project”) that “the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists,” and that, “unless you make significant changes in the media, it will be vastly more difficult to have a revolution.” So, it’s important to keep his true intentions in mind when he starts claiming to have found “a libertarian’s dream” of a solution to what ails America’s media sector. [For more details on his intentions, see my essay from last year, "Free Press, Robert McChesney & the “Struggle” for Media."]
In the meantime, this particular libertarian would like to keep his money and spend it on media as he sees fit, thank you very much!