As media giants totter, battered by the Internet and the economic crisis, saving the newspapers has become a hot topic. It is richly ironic that the Net, which has both greatly facilitated the work of journalists and expanded their readership, has also left many unemployed. There are concerns that the death of journalism as we know it will leave our culture ill-informed—blogs are good for opinion and fact-checking, but they are no substitute for original reporting—and endanger democracy by removing a vital part of its checks and balances.
The debate revolves around two key questions. One, does society truly need the professional media? Two, how can professional journalism survive in a new media environment?
On the first question, my answer is a resounding, though possibly self-serving "yes." While I am a fan of blogs, I believe they work best when the "mainstream media" and the blogs complement each other. Otherwise, the blogosphere is all too liable to disintegrate into shrill partisan screaming and irresponsible rumor-mongering.
The responsible media do have a vital role to play in a democracy. However, the mainstream media's defenders would do well to acknowledge some of their failings. A recent editorial in The New Republic laments that "press-bashing"—whether from right-wing media critics such as former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg, or leftists on the Huffington Post site who accuse the media of conformism—has created a "poisonous atmosphere," undermining the authority of the press.
But what if the critiques have merit? Goldberg's anti-media broadsides may be over the top, but his basic argument—that the liberal politics of most journalists influence media coverage, not because journalists don't strive to be objective but because their cultural milieu influences their perceptions of objectivity—has a great deal of truth to it. Few people doubt that Barack Obama got breaks from the press. And there are well-documented instances of media bias leading to sloppy reporting, with journalists all but recycling the press releases of advocacy groups on such issues as domestic violence, homelessness, or the perils of gun ownership. The press has been the target of unfair criticism, but it cannot be absolved of blame for the damage to its reputation.
That said, the media's present financial woes have little to do with its real or perceived lack of balance, and everything to do with the economics of publishing. News corporations have always subsidized serious reporting and commentary with revenues from other functions of the newspapers, such as classified advertising or sports news. Today, most of those functions have been diverted to other media, including the Internet.
Promising solutions include non-profit programs to support investigative reporting and news analysis. Just because we need professional journalism does not mean that it has to come only in the traditional package of the newspaper. Independent journalists, working as individuals or as teams, may thrive if they can have access to resources outside the conventional structure of a media organization.
Far more controversial is the quest to get readers to pay for online content. In fact, there is no good reason that online content should be free, other than "people are used to it." Is it impossible to persuade people to pay for something they are used to getting for free? Not at all. Online music downloads are a good example; so is television. While TV had been free since its inception, large numbers of people proved willing to pay for cable and digital television.
A subscriber-only model for individual websites has repeatedly proven unworkable. (The Wall Street Journal—a notable exception—gets people to pay for financial information while providing most editorial content free of charge.) The main reason it cannot work is that people who read news and commentary on the Internet usually get their content from many different sites. That is the great advantage of the Internet: you can go from The Washington Post to The London Times at the click of a mouse, and follow a link within one story to read another. If every news site started hiding its content behind a pay wall, reader would face either huge bills or greatly restricted choices, and many would seek to circumvent the subscription requirements.
Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time, recently got into the fray with a proposal to make web media content available for micropayments similar to iTunes, "a one-click system with a really simple interface." If you see a link to an interesting article on, say, the San Jose Mercury News website, you don't have to buy a $20 subscription to the publication—you can pay a nickel or a dime to read the individual item.
While this is a promising idea, it has substantial drawbacks. Those nickels and dimes can add up, and if your monthly bill is high enough, you may think twice the next time you feel like clicking on a link.
A better approach may be to make news and analysis content available only through media portals or carriers, similar to cable television providers. A subscription to a carrier would give access to any news site (newspaper, magazine, blog) that is a part of its package. The subscription price could be set by level of consumption—$20 a month for 40 hours of media access, $40 for 100 hours, and so on. Or it could vary depending on which publications are included, while content outside the customer's standard package could be available for one-time micropayments. Different media portals could experiment with different fee scales. This would allow people to surf the Web without having to ponder each click of a link. Revenues could be distributed to individual websites depending on their readership.
This strategy would still require a drastic departure from Internet business as usual. The migration of participating sites behind media-portal walls would have to be coordinated. Some policing would be needed to ensure that premium content is not reposted on free-access sites. This could make the carriers look like bad guys, at least in the eyes of those for whom free online content has become an entitlement if not an article of faith.
Yet, if there is a will to adopt the media-portal subscription model, there will be a way. Even in the age of celebrity gossip sites and reality shows, millions of Americans still respect real journalism enough to be willing to pay to help keep it alive.
Provided, of course, that the media work harder to deserve and retain that respect.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at Real Clear Politics.