Government funding for journalism: necessary evil or just evil?

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

It’s not news that many journalistic outlets in North America, with the exception of a select few like the New York Times or the Washington Post, are in the midst of a funding crisis. Advertising revenue continues to decline, thanks in part to the market power of digital giants such as Google and Facebook, and so virtually every publisher big or small has had to find other sources of funding. Some have turned to venture capital, while others are experimenting with nonprofit status, crowdfunding, and even selling shares to their supporters. And now there’s another controversial source of financing being added to the mix: Government funding. In New Jersey, the state has agreed to give a nonprofit entity called the Civic Information Consortium $2 million to hand out to publishers. And in Canada, the government created a $600 million fund aimed at supporting journalism through a variety of tax breaks and grants. But does government money come with too many strings attached and too many potential conflicts of interest? Or is it better than nothing?

To answer these and other related questions, we invited a range of experts, critics, and observers to join us on our Galley discussion platform for a virtual panel on the topic, including: Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York; Victor Pickard of USC Annenberg’s School for Communication; Mike Rispoli of Free Press in New Jersey, one of the architects of the Civic Information Consortium proposal; Molly de Aguiar, who runs the Independence Public Media Foundation in Philadelphia; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia; Caitlin Johnson of Policy Matters Ohio; Jeremy Klaszus of The Sprawl in Calgary, Alberta and Saima Desai, editor of Briarpatch magazine in Saskatchewan. All of those interviews—along with featured interviews from previous Galley panels—can be found on the Galley site.

On the question of whether taking government funding is a necessary evil or just evil, Jarvis definitely came down in favor of the latter. “I see danger everywhere if government funds or in any way approves or interferes with journalism and speech,” he said. “To accept funding from government, no matter the alleged safeguards, puts us at risk of mortal conflict of interest. Whom do we serve then? Need I say it? Follow the money.” Jarvis also admitted, however, that every revenue source brings with it the potential for conflicts of interest (the News Integrity Initiative, which is part of the Tow-Knight Center and the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY, is partially funded by Facebook). Many people hold the BBC in Britain up as an example of how government funding for journalism can work, and it has done much good, Jarvis says.
“But now my fears are coming to life as we see Boris Johnson coming to attack the BBC, its franchise, its funding, and its legitimacy. If given similar power in this country, I shudder to think what Trump would do.”

Rispoli, who helped create the Civic Information Consortium, is much closer to the “government funding is good” end of the spectrum. There was a dire need in New Jersey for quality local journalism, he says, and the state’s initial investment “could help fund innovative media and civic-technology projects in New Jersey for decades to come.” And it came about because citizens of the state took action in support of it, Rispoli says. “They signed petitions and called their lawmakers; they lobbied at the statehouse; they testified before committees. The consortium is the direct result of people-power.” Molly de Aguiar is also on the pro side of the government funding question: “The business model of local journalism is collapsing and we desperately need to consider new and radically innovative options,” she says. Everyone in journalism “should be celebrating the fact that the New Jersey public pressured their elected officials for funding for quality local journalism.”

Emily Bell said she is also in favor of government funding, but she would like it to be something much bigger than just a bag of money — possibly something like a PBS-style public media entity, funded by contributions from the digital giants. “For me the big question is do we have the political imagination to create investment [in an] independent non-profit infrastructure to support types of journalism whatever the market conditions?” she says. Pickard agreed that ideally the government would fund some kind of new public-media entity. “It is hard to imagine how we can tackle the journalism crisis without a large central public media fund that could address news deserts and various unmet information and communication needs,” he said. And while some may criticize public models like the BBC, “these models are certainly less flawed than the commercial model that is currently collapsing in on itself,” Pickard said.

Here’s more on government funding and journalism:

Libraries? Caitlin Johnson of Policy Matters Ohio says her group did some research and found that the number of people employed by the journalism industry in that state fell by more than half between 2004 and 2017. The Civic Information Consortium model is interesting, she said, but getting a lot of new funding might be hard in Ohio. However, the group found that Ohioans love libraries. “People go crazy when lawmakers propose cutting funding for libraries,” she said. “Local governments are almost always successful in passing levies to support their library systems. Maybe libraries could be a place where a Civic Info Consortium type institute could live? Or they could be the local organizations that receive the grant funding to do the reporting.”

Old and failing: Jeremy Klaszus, who runs an alternative news outlet called The Sprawl in Alberta, said he was hoping some of the money the Canadian government has been giving out would help smaller outlets like his. One of the federal programs is the Local Journalism Initiative, which funds news organizations to hire reporters to do civic journalism in areas of news poverty. The Sprawl applied and was rejected. Most of the money went to existing newspapers, including those owned by Postmedia, which is controlled by US hedge funds. “Is this is really supporting Canadian journalism?” says Klaszus, who also wondered whether the funding wasn’t just “propping up the old and failing newspaper model instead of incentivizing new forms of journalism.”

No transparency: Saima Desai, who runs Briarpatch magazine in Saskatchewan, also said she was hoping the government funding might help support small media outlets like her own, and was disappointed when that wasn’t the case. The grants for the local initiative were handled by a newspaper industry lobby group called NewsMedia Canada, and “the money disproportionately went to NewsMedia Canada members – mostly established, for-profit newspapers – and organizations who were on the judging panel,” Desai says. “There’s been a really stunning lack of transparency in the whole process. Throwing money at the same corporations, I would argue, only enables them to keep laying off other journalists and otherwise atrophying the media landscape.”

Other notable stories:

Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s new public editor for the Washington Post, writes about how the paper has been able to pull off “the hardest trick in journalism,” namely mixing high-quality news with enough high-traffic clickbait to help drive revenue. “More than any of the others,” he writes. “The Post has pulled off the neat trick of combining prestige journalism with a shadow clickbait factory that puts out a steady flow of fast-turnaround, aggregated stories grasping at virality.”

According to The Times in the UK, the BBC will announce significant cuts to its news operation “as painful reforms are pushed through before the next director-general is appointed.” Popular news programs such as Radio 4’s World at One could bear the brunt of the cuts, the paper said, and producers and reporters “will increasingly be expected to produce packages that can be reworked for multiple BBC news outlets.” The Times said that the corporation is also planning to launch a daily news podcast, inspired by the success of The Daily by the New York Times.

Jim Lehrer, co-founder of the PBS show NewsHour, passed away at the age of 85 on Thursday, according to a statement from the network. Lehrer reported for both the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Times-Herald from 1959 to 1966, covering local politics, and was at the police station when Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin, was brought in for questioning. The NewsHour started in 1975 and quickly became one of the landmark news shows in US network television. Lehrer interviewed every major figure for decades, and moderated 12 presidential debates.

Dan Froomkin writes for Salon about the way that the New York Times and Washington Post covered the impeachment hearings. While the Times coverage was relatively well done and focused on the issues, he writes, the Washington Post “whiffed in the most miserable way.” The paper’s management seem to be “so addicted to conflict that they can’t even recognize that when one side is making history, the other side’s smack is not equally important,” Froomkin said. Coverage was also lacking in other papers as well, he said, including the Los Angeles Times.

One of the controversial proposals made by the European Union last year was a so-called “link tax,” which would require news aggregators like Google and other websites to pay for any excerpts of content from third-party sites that were longer than a few words. Now Germany has put some numbers to this new rule: The proposed German implementation would limit links to news sites to quoting the headline and a maximum of 3 seconds of video and/or a thumbnail of 128 pixels wide by 128 pixels tall. This would apply not just to excerpts but also to memes, mashups, and summaries of the article in directories such as Google News.

According to a BuzzFeed report, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all helping to spread a rumor that the Chinese coronavirus outbreak is a plot by former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, a conspiracy theory that is being spread by supporters of the pro-Trump QAnon movement and the anti-vaccine community. A QAnon YouTuber named Jordan Sather warned his followers on Tuesday that the coronavirus was a “new fad disease,” and claimed that the release of the virus that causes it was “planned.”

Deadspin, the G/O Media property that has been in limbo since its entire writing staff quit en masse, is being revived under a new editor. G/O announced that the new editor-in-chief for the site is Jim Rich, the former editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News, executive editor at HuffPost, and night sports editor at the New York Post. Rich says he is looking to hire staff to replace the ones that left, many of whom quit after a directive from management that they were no longer to write about non-sports topics. Rich told Variety there weren’t any constraints placed on his editorial decisions, and that “everyone who knows me knows I’m not a ‘stick-to-sports’ guy.”

Isabel dos Santos, said to be one of Africa’s wealthiest people, has been accused of rampant financial misconduct after a trove of leaked documents tied her to a wide range of questionable conduct. On Sunday, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists—the group behind the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers—released the so-called Luanda Leaks documents, along with an investigation that made the extensive case that dos Santos exploited her relationship with her powerful father to obtain public contracts, tax breaks, stakes in a raft of international businesses.

CNN reports that more than two months after announcing a review of his work, The Hill newspaper has yet to complete its promised evaluation of columns written by John Solomon, a former executive at the outlet who during his time at the publication pushed conspiracy theories about Ukraine into the public conversation. In a statement issued on Thursday, editor-In-chief Bob Cusack told CNN that the review “continues with a collective intensity and thoroughness which is needed and expected on a subject of  importance” and that “we cannot put an exact timetable to something this significant.”

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