As the newspaper industry continues to shrink, the Poynter Institute, which is to establishment journalism what The Vatican is to Catholicism, recently published on its blog a column urging Congress to put $2.4 billion in assistance for local news in the current infrastructure bill. What’s striking about the piece is that in advancing the concept of providing taxpayer-funded vouchers to media consumers, it employs many of the same arguments for programs that help families afford to send their children to private schools.
Considering the media’s hostile attitude toward school vouchers, that has so much irony it deserves a spot on the periodic table of elements.
News coverage feeds the public shopworn narratives (publicly funded private-school vouchers “drain money from public schools”) rather than facts. Editorials take opposition to education choice to such heights of hyperbole (“They approved the death sentence for public education in Florida at 1:20 p.m. Tuesday.”) they require a pressurized cabin.
Steve Waldman, chair of Rebuild Local News, acknowledges the potential pitfalls of having the government directly subsidize the Fourth Estate. The way around that: Put the money in the hands of individuals to spend as they choose.
Voila, give Americans $250, either as a refundable tax credit or as a voucher, to buy local news subscriptions or to donate to local news nonprofit organizations. Thus, Waldman writes, “it would be consumers, not government officials, deciding who to support. It is strictly nonpartisan and nonideological.”
How would it work? “The government could set up a system in which taxpayers see a list of local newsrooms in their ZIP code, and directly assign the funds to that local newsroom.”
Waldman compares it to the postal subsidy during the nation’s founding, which because it was offered to all newspapers regardless of their political leanings meant government was not picking winners and losers.
“Yes, some scurrilous newspapers ended up getting help,” Waldman concedes, “but because it was content-neutral, it also helped create the newspaper industry and stimulated the development of American democracy.”
Waldman optimistically praises a “bottom-up system” in which “residents — with their buying power amplified — can support the media that best serves their community.” And there’s a free-market component! “The news organizations will need to earn this support; the market will punish those who don’t serve their communities well.” It might even spur innovation by helping “smaller community publications and digital startups.”
The plan sounds a lot like giving parents a voucher — let’s call it the Family Empowerment Scholarship, worth, say $7,000 — that they can use to pay tuition to a private school they have chosen because they think it best meets the needs of their children. When independent schools compete for students, it can spur innovation, such as micro-schools.
Yes, as critics love to point out, some “scurrilous” schools may end up getting help, because consumers don’t always make the best (or “correct” in some eyes) choices. But because parents, not government, are the ultimate arbiters and hold the economic power, schools must earn their business. Those who don’t serve their communities well will perish.
All you have to do is replace “news organizations” or “newspapers” in Waldman’s piece with “schools” and the arguments for publicly funded “media choice” are virtually identical to those for publicly funded school choice.
That’s not to pick on Waldman. As a 30-year veteran of newspapers who experienced the industry in both its glory and its decline, I sympathize with trying anything to reverse the downward spiral. As for his idea of media vouchers, I’m currently agnostic.
But as a longtime supporter of education choice, I also find it interesting seeing the mainstream media overwhelmingly oppose publicly funded vouchers being redeemed at nongovernment education entities, but quite comfortable when it comes to vouchers going to nongovernment journalism entities. The public can be trusted to pick its media, but it can’t be trusted to pick its schools.
If Waldman’s piece encourages establishment journalists to think unconventionally about funding journalism, perhaps it might also trigger some self-reflection about unconventional means of helping families choose the education that works best for their children.