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A National Endowment for Journalism—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67 and Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in the UK Guardian on February 13, 2009.

A National Endowment for Journalism; Efforts to save print newspapers are missing the point. The real question is how to save investigative reporting
By Bruce Ackerman ’67 and Ian Ayres ’86

The traditional newspaper is dying. The Evening Standard has been sold off for a pound to a former KGB agent, the Los Angeles Times is bankrupt and even the New York Times is in trouble. Mexican plutocrat Carlos Slim may become its largest shareholder in return for financing the paper's billion-dollar debt. Except for the financial press, newspapers have failed to convince readers to pay for online access – and there is no reason to think that readers will suddenly succumb to the charms of PayPal.

The newspaper bust has been good for one business. Policy wonks have been charging into the breach with a host of different solutions to the escalating crisis. Aside from the usual appeals for tax breaks and bail-outs, the more innovative proposals come in two types. On the private side, there have been calls for charities to endow newspapers or to subsidise political reporting. On the public side, the success of the BBC and American Public Broadcasting provides a paradigm that might be extended to the print media.

There is a third way out. We urge democracies throughout the world to consider the creation of national endowments for journalism that are carefully designed to confront the impending collapse of investigative reporting.

The real concern is not the newspaper, but news coverage. It's not clear that print news is a viable technology. Classified ads are more efficiently delivered by websites. Nobody under 50 waits to read all about stock prices or sports scores in the morning edition. The government should sit back and let the market decide the right way to distribute the news.

But there are huge costs to losing a vibrant core of investigative reporters covering local, national and international stories. The internet is well suited to detect scandals that require lots of bloggers to spend a little bit of time searching for bits of incriminating evidence. But it's no substitute for serious investigative reporting that requires weeks of intelligent inquiry to get to the heart of the problem. Without Woodwards and Bernsteins, there will be even more Nixons and Madoffs raining mayhem and destruction.

It will take decades to revitalise investigative journalism if we allow the present corps of reporters to disintegrate. This is happening at an alarming rate. A Pew study indicates that 15,000 journalists lost their jobs in the US in 2008, with reductions of more than 20% at large newspapers. These grim numbers are harbingers of a worldwide crisis that undermines the very foundation of liberal democracy. Any serious solution should focus exclusively on this problem – the collapse of investigative journalism, not the fate of particular delivery systems.

The problem with a BBC-style solution is clear enough. It is one thing for government to serve as one source of investigation but quite another for it to dominate the field. A near-monopoly would mean the death of critical inquiry.

There are serious problems with private endowments as well. For starters, there is the matter of scale. Pro Publica, an innovative private foundation for investigative reporting, is currently funding 28 journalists. It is hard to make the case for a massive increase in private funding when university endowments are crashing throughout the world, imperilling basic research. More fundamentally, a system of private endowments creates perverse incentives. Insulated from the profit motive, the endowments will pursue their own agendas without paying much attention to the issues that the public really cares about.

Here is where our system of national endowments enters the argument. In contrast to current proposals, we do not rely on public or private do-gooders to dole out money to their favourite journalists. Each national endowment would subsidise investigations on a strict mathematical formula based on the number of citizens who actually read their reports on news sites.

Some might find this prospect daunting. Readers may flock to sensationalist tabloids that will also qualify for grants for their "investigations". But common sense, as well as fundamental liberal values, counsels against any governmental effort to regulate the quality of news. So long as the endowment only subsidises investigative expenditures, in-depth reporting will get a large share of the fund – provided that it generates important stories that generate broad interest.

The endowment must monitor media hits and circulation counts. This is doable. Advertisers already rely on independent audits. So can the government. Some governmental monitoring of financial matters is also necessary. News organisations would otherwise be tempted to obtain subsidies for marketing and business operations. Without minimising the problems involved in institutional design, the creation of an effective and disciplined national endowment seems entirely realistic.

The crisis in reporting comes at the worst possible time, when a broad range of industries are lining up for big bail-outs. We generally oppose government efforts to second-guess the market. But this case really is special. Liberal democracy can survive a crisis in the auto or construction industry, but it cannot do without a vibrant fourth estate.

Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres are professors at Yale Law School.