Does the Future of Journalism Depend On Expanding Public Media?

Over on the Zocalo Public Square website, Occidental grad, former Washington Post managing editor and President of the New America Foundation Steve Coll weighs in on the notion of expanding public media across the digital spectrum. Public media already reaches 98 percent of the American public through NPR and PBS affiliates and those outlets consistently engender higher levels of trust than their for-profit counterparts. So why not have more public media outlets? (Aside from the fact that unless someone is etching the day’s news into F-35s as they come off the line, no Congress is going to agree to fund the expansion of public media.)

There has been much experimentation with new forms of investigative journalism, and some non-profit efforts like Pro Publica are delivering impressive results.   But such experimentation may not produce a robust and sustainable business model for commercial journalism.  History in the United States shows that readers of the news have never paid anywhere close to the full cost of providing the news.  Rather, journalism has always been subsidized to a large extent by the federal government, political parties, or advertising.

On the broadcast front, commercial licensees are making profits from scarce public resources, the airwaves; they must compensate the public for their access, just as resource companies do when they mine ore or cut trees in public parks. Moreover, as the Founders envisioned, freedom of the press and a healthy public square are vital to the republic—so vital that their pursuit is worthy of modest, content-neutral public investments in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly free-market system.

We do have reliable evidence that the public continues to value mainstream professional journalism, however, even when so many new choices are available in digital spaces.  The total audience for the best newspaper journalism has grown markedly since 2000, if online readers are taken into account. The audiences for existing public media outlets in the U.S. are also healthy and growing. The country’s 365 public television stations have 61 million viewers each week, according to research by Barbara Cochran, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair of Public Affairs Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. Public radio has 30 million listeners. During the last two decades, the total audience for NPR member stations has grown 176 percent, including a 9 percent expansion during the last five years…

Our public media system has achieved this extraordinary result despite being starved for public funds, in comparison to other industrialized countries. The U. S. spends about $1.43 per capita, or $420 million a year, on public media. Great Britain spends about $87 per capita. Canada, one of the most miserly among industrialized countries, spends about $27 per capita. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget has increased less than 5 percent in real terms since 1982.

Coll goes on to explain how to counteract perceived liberal bias among NPR and other public media arenas, in the wake of the Juan Williams debacle.

Conservatives see NPR as hobbled by liberal bias, an impression reinforced by the hasty dismissal last year of commentator Juan Williams. The network should be accountable to all of its legitimate constituents — to function as a public square it must be open and fair to all comers. The BBC provides an instructive example: listening to conservative criticism, its managers concluded that their problem was not bias in the way they reported, but an unconscious bias in the subjects they chose. Issues of concern to conservatives, such as immigration and business, were disproportionately neglected. A course correction broadened the BBC’s base of support.