Skip to main content.

Can the Government Save Journalism?

Can the Government Save Journalism?

Picture of Angilee Shah

This article was first published by Zócalo Public Square, and is reposted here with the author's permission.

The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again

by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols

-Reviewed by Angilee Shah

The Death and Life of American Journalism, by Robert W. McChesneyHealthcare reform passed perhaps because enough people recognized a hard-to-swallow truth: people need healthcare and the free market is not providing it well enough. Substitute the news for healthcare and you have a compelling argument for subsidized journalism.

Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols do not make this explicit analogy in The Death and Life of American Journalism, but they do say that journalism - quality journalism - is a public good that, when left to corporate devices, hemorrhages its best reporters and editors and ultimately leaves Americans in the dark. The way they see it, the collapse of American journalism is as much a threat to democracy as the collapse of the American healthcare system is a threat to the economy. Their book is a reframing of the news media debate and a proposal to save journalism.

Death and Life takes a larger view than the Internet-savvy entrepreneurs who see new technology as both the killer and savior of journalism. To be sure, the Internet is a serious challenge to financial solvency, but McChesney and Nichols, founders of the media reform advocacy group Free Press, show that the crisis runs deeper. "The entire corporate news-media system is disintegrating," they write. "Simply remaking business models to squeeze a few more dollars out of newspapers, or to find a few on the Internet, will not solve the crisis."

Case in point: Newspapers that are making a profit - double-digit profits, even - are not necessarily sustaining their newsrooms, or the quality and breadth of information they provide. McClatchy Company's newspapers earned a 21 percent profit margin in 2008, but cut a third of its workforce. Local network news is flailing, and while cable news is growing, it is not producing a significant amount of original reporting. On the Internet, aggregators rule - but what happens when there is not enough quality journalism to aggregate? According to Paper Cuts, a blog that tracks layoffs in the newspaper industry, over 15,000 newspaper professionals got the axe in 2008. Invariably, the most expensive reporters are cut first - expert science journalists, staffers of remote foreign bureaus, uncelebrated beat reporters who cover the annals of state capitals.

For many, it may be uncomfortable to think about breaking the high wall between the government and an independent press. But McChesney and Nichols are not asking for a government takeover or a bailout akin to Wall Street's cash infusion. Instead they propose subsidies in line with the history of the development of a vibrant American press, and in line with the concessions that the American government offers media companies to this day. They seek tax breaks and postal service subsidies. They outline in great detail how a low-profit limited liability corporation - "the for-profit with a non-profit soul" - could help newspapers, whether online or print, diversify funding. They prescribe increased funding for public media, and "Citizen News Vouchers" for Americans to choose non-corporate media that their tax dollars should support. Taxes on electronics, the auctioning of broadcast spectrum, and advertising could support such programs while forcing corporate media to compete fairly.

It is an expensive idea, requiring much more capital than, say, an Internet start-up or a one-man-band reported blog. But anyone who has ever spent time reporting the news knows that reporting the news well costs money. They also know that the current system, and proposals that emphasize advertising dollars on the web, are not financing the reportage that helps preserve transparency, explain difficult concepts or even prevent unnecessary wars. Even as readers stop paying for the news, they still value and require it. The authors of Death and Life offer the brilliant analogy of America's national parks: Just because you have never visited one, does not mean that you would want them are paved over.

Excerpt: "Imagine, for one moment, what would happen if the federal government issued an edict demanding that there be a sharp reduction in international journalism, that leading newspapers be shuttered, that statehouse bureaus be closed and that local newsrooms have their staffs and budgets slashed. Imagine, too, that the president is issued an order that Washington bureaus be closed, and that news media concentrate on celebrities and trivia, rather than investigate the economic crisis or rigorously pursue corruption in federal agencies. Had all that occurred, these official actions would have sparked an outcry that made Watergate look like a day at the beach. Yet, when quasi-monopolistic commercial interests effectively do pretty much the same thing, and leave our society as impoverished culturally as if it had been the result of a government fiat, it is met mostly with resignation, as something that as unavoidable as the Rocky Mountain ranger when one drives from Chicago to California."

Further Reading: Losing the News and The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Death and Life of American Journalism, by Robert W. McChesney

The Death and Life of American Journalism, by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols

Angilee Shah is a freelance journalist who writes about globalization and politics. You can read more of her work at

Leave A Comment


Soaring out-of-pocket costs, rising premiums, and shaky insurance exchanges raise urgent questions this election season. What policies might address these problems, and how do the presidential candidates’ health plans differ? This webinar will give an overview of each candidates’ policy prescriptions and provide reporters with crucial context for covering one of the election’s most important but overlooked issues.

The 2017 California Fellowship, for California-based journalists only, will be held March 5-9, 2017 in Los Angeles. This Fellowship will focus on vulnerable populations and access to care and health care reform and innovation. We also take an in-depth look at how community conditions influence individuals' prospects for health. Each Fellow receives a $1,000 stipend to assist with the costs of reporting an ambitious Fellowship project on a California health issue, as well as six months of mentoring by a Senior Fellow. Deadline to apply is Dec. 1.  For more information, go here.


Member Activities

Barrett Newkirk has shared a fellowship project

Read it.

Monya De has shared a blog post

Read it.

Laura Russell's profile has been updated

Connect with Laura Russell

Alex Hepgurn has shared a blog post

Read it.

Ben Lynch commented on a post

Join the conversation.
More Member Activities

Follow Us



CHJ Icon