July 14, 2010

No, journalism does not need government help

Should journalism be left to the free-market? Columbia University president Lee Bollinger says no in his Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Bollinger argues that newspapers and broadcasters provide "essential information" required for citizens to make informed decisions about their government. Therefore, when newspapers and broadcasters go out of business, we -- the American people -- lose more than just another company, we lose the "essential information" they provided us.

For that reason, to ensure the American people always have that "essential information," the government should step in and help fund journalism.

I encourage you to read his op-ed in its entirety. While it presents some interesting ideas, his ultimate solution is misguided.

The biggest mistake Bollinger makes is equating "journalism" with "newspapers and broadcasters." While people may think they're synonymous, they are in fact very distinct things. Journalism is simply "the investigation and reporting of events, issues, and trends to a broad audience." Newspapers and broadcasters, on the other hand, are mere mediums for journalism. Journalism will always be around because it will never be exclusively tied to one medium.

So while his piece is titled "Journalism Needs Government Help," it should really be called "Newspapers and Broadcasters Need Government Help." As bad as it has gotten for newspapers and broadcasters -- and no one is denying that it is bad -- journalism per se is doing just fine. It will continue to thrive in blogs, photojournalism and fact-checking websites along with hundreds of other mediums not even thought of yet.

If the government really wants its citizens have that "essential information" so they're able to make informed decisions, it should focus on being more transparent and accountable before anything else.

A more transparent government will allow citizens to make informed decisions without relying upon newspapers and broadcasters to present it to them. If, for example, they want to learn more about campaign donations they can visit blogs and websites dedicated to that topic. If they don't trust those websites, they can dig into the records themselves. In either case, the government is providing the public with its "primary sources" and allowing them to do as they please with it.

So while the loss of newspapers and broadcasters would be unfortunate, it would not spell the end of journalism as we know it. It will continue to thrive, albeit in another form.