Journalism is in a bad state. Local news is dying, newsrooms are shrinking, and fewer resources are available each year for investigative journalism. The public ought to care about this because, in the course of doing business, media companies provide us with information and facts we otherwise would not have known. They create value and we should figure out how to preserve that.
The problem facing news media today is straightforward enough: only a few companies can make any money. News is consumed mainly through the Internet, and like most Internet businesses news companies are now subject to strong winner-take-all forces. Advertising spends have shifted to aggregators like Facebook and Google, and they aren’t coming back. A few dominant publishers, like the New York Times, are capturing most subscriber revenue. It’s not clear why someone who pays for one news service would pay for another. The likely outcome of this is a small number of large media companies, like the New York Times, will become profitable and the rest will fail.
This is not a positive outcome from a public interest perspective. There is value in a fragmented media landscape in which a variety of voices with different views, styles, expertise, and geographic locations can thrive. Entrusting one or two companies with the task of providing a society with information is — at best — going to leave us with stagnant, complacent, and cautious journalism. Not optimal.
How best to foster a vibrant media ecosystem with many high quality publishers, then? One suggestion has been to expand public broadcasters to provide the whole range of vital journalism and news coverage. This would be a good step, but insufficient. Having a single source of information is not healthy for any society, and I’m skeptical that a lone institution would be capable of providing the highest quality service — especially when it is doing so in a vacuum. We need a public broadcaster to provide a base level of information and coverage, but a healthy independent media ecosystem should exist alongside it.
The Government of Canada has come up with another possible answer: create a CAD $645 million package to give tax credits to media outlets for a portion of the wages of each journalist they employ. This program has been designed in such a way as to benefit almost exclusively large, established incumbents — big newspapers, mainly — and exclude everyone else. It’s deeply flawed proposal, potentially worse than doing nothing, but many others have already exposed these problems so I won’t do so again here.
I want to suggest a potential alternative: an annual journalism voucher for each tax filer that could be transferred to any qualifying media organization.
The mechanics of the voucher could function similar to the SNAP program in the United States, commonly known as food stamps. Each adult would receive a certain amount to spend how they’d like amongst qualifying media organizations. These organizations, for-profit or non-profit, could offer subscriptions or other products to people in exchange for their vouchers. The media organizations would then exchange the received vouchers for cash from the government.
The size of the voucher could be set at whatever was deemed necessary to create a healthy media environment. Were the funds allocated for the Canadian bailout program divided equally between each adult, everyone would receive a voucher of around $20. Unused vouchers could roll over to future years.
The journalism voucher solution has a number of virtues other possibilities do not.
First, the journalism voucher would minimize government’s role in distributing funds to the media. Each individual would choose how to spend their voucher, and with which media organizations. This would limit the perception — or possibility — of state interference with the free press.
The government would still have a role in deciding what organizations would qualify to receive vouchers. This is an unavoidable point of interaction, but one that could be managed. You’d have to think through the criteria carefully, but I think it should be broad enough to capture all organizations that create public. It goes without saying that the institution charged with applying the criteria should exist at arms-length from the government. Independent commissions of this sort are often used in democratic states successfully, without undue government interference.
Second, the journalism voucher would promote a vibrant, highly fragmented media ecosystem. Startups and independent journalists could tap into the pool of public funds in the same way as large incumbents: by appealing to individual consumers. Of course larger organizations with marketing budgets would be at an advantage, but this advantage exists without a voucher system as well. In spite of that advantage, single-person and small media operations are already popping up on services like Patreon. The infusion of public resources into the industry with a journalism voucher would create even more of these operations.
Third, journalism vouchers would expand the number of people accessing news and journalism. Media subscriptions are typically purchased by those with substantial disposable incomes. The voucher solution would give a broader range of people access to more media options.
A corollary of this is that most media is tailored for wealthier audiences — they are, after all, the ones who can pay. The voucher would create demand for journalism catering to people with less money. This would be a welcome change from the status quo.
Most of the ideas on the table for saving journalism and news media are either insufficient or counter-productive. We need a solution that encourages a thriving media ecosystem with a broad range of participants competing for public dollars, as free as possible from government interference. The journalism voucher — ideally layered over a well-funded public broadcaster — is the best way to achieve that.