The sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos is just the most recent episode in the decline and fall of professional journalism. By selling out to a mega-billionaire without any newspaper experience, the Graham family has put a priceless national asset at the mercy of a single outsider. Perhaps Jeff Bezos will use his new plaything responsibly; perhaps not; if not, one of the few remaining sources of serious journalism will be lost.
The crisis in the English-speaking world will turn into a catastrophe in smaller language zones. The English-speaking market is so large that advertisers will pay a lot to gain access to the tens of millions of readers who regularly click onto the New York Times or the Guardian. But the Portuguese-reading public is far too small to support serious journalism on the internet. What happens to Portuguese democracy when nobody is willing to pay for old-fashioned newspapers?
The blogosphere can’t be expected to take up the slack. First-class reporting on national and international affairs isn’t for amateurs. It requires lots of training and lots of contacts and lots of expenses. It also requires reporters with the well-honed capacity to write for a broad audience — something that eludes the overwhelming majority of academic specialists and think-tank policy wonks. And it requires editors who recognize the need to maintain their organization’s long-term credibility when presenting the hot-button news of the day. The modern newspaper created the right incentives, but without a comparable business model for the new technology, blogging will degenerate into a postmodern nightmare — with millions spouting off without any concern for the facts.
We can’t afford to wait for the invisible hand to come up with a new way to provide economic support for serious journalism. To be sure, the financial press has proved moderately successful in persuading readers to pay for online access; and mainstream media are now trying to emulate this success. But if tens of millions of readers don’t succumb to the charms of PayPal — and quickly — now is the time for some creative thinking.
For starters, it would be a mistake to rely on a BBC-style solution. It is one thing for government to serve as a major source of news; quite another to give it a virtual monopoly on reporting. This could mean the death of critical fact-based inquiry when a demagogic government takes power — this risk is especially great in small language zones, where outside media can’t take up the slack.
Enter the Internet news voucher. Under our proposal, each news article on the web will end by asking readers whether it contributed to their political understanding. If so, they can click the yes-box, and send the message to a National Endowment for Journalism — which would obtain an annual appropriation from the government. This money would be distributed to news organizations on the basis of a strict mathematical formula: the more clicks, the bigger the check from the Endowment.
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