International Debates About Journalism and Public Policy

Earlier this week, Steve Coll of the New America Foundation wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review about the need to update our outdated media policy framework. As we consider his recommendations, it’s worth examining similar debates happening abroad.

Over at SaveTheNews, I have written before about many of the international debates surrounding the future of journalism. Governments around the world are looking at what role policy should take in fostering and supporting journalism and public media in the digital age. Recently, Vox Publica, a website discussing the evolution of Norwegian public media, published an in-depth look at the debates happing in Norway and some of the policy changes under investigation there.

In Norway, newspapers are seen as so vital, they have been exempt from the Value Added Tax, which totals roughly $280 million in subsidies. Newspapers are fighting hard to maintain that subsidy, but with the rise of new digital models, there are a lot of questions about whether it makes sense for so much funding to be going to print. How Norway will update its media policy is the source of much debate.

Interestingly, Vox Publica suggests two policy ideas that have also been a part of the mix here in the US. In thinking about how to construct platform neutral subsidies that can promote innovation and experimentation, as well as support longstanding newsrooms that want to reinvest in journalism, Vox Publica suggests two ideas that aim to subsidize the journalist, not the publication. The first idea has been outlined by Sven Egil Omdal, a Norwegian scholar and journalist, who suggests “supporting journalistic work directly through […] geographically dispersed work grants channeled to talented individuals.” The other notion they examine, promoted by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, but first described by the scholar Ed Baker, is to give tax credits to newsrooms for journalists’ salaries, thereby encouraging outlets to hire journalists, instead of fire them.

Vox Publica is clear about the challenges these two models present. Neither, as described in the article, includes enough of a political firewall between politics and the journalists to fully insulate them from undue influence. This was one concern that many journalists raised in response to the Federal Trade Commission’s draft discussion report. The other was focused on the ways in which government subsidies too often benefit old entrenched interests (look at our farm subsidy system, for example).

The authors are aware of this – and actually point out how the current policy does just that: “Today’s tax exemption implies that the five largest newspapers in Norway obtain 40 percent of total press subsidies. The Media Support Committee will need to provide a very good justification should this situation continue.”

Steve Coll also addresses this question in his CJR piece:

When it comes to media policy reform, it is fair […] to worry about an inherent bias toward large, professional organizations. This bias has been present, to cite one example, in the regulation of cable franchises at the county and city levels of government backed by federal law. That regime of rules was supposed to seed innovation on subsidized public, educational, and government channels. In many jurisdictions, it hasn’t. New policy ideas should be interrogated for biases against small innovators and cleansed of them where possible.

As our media policy framework is debated at home and abroad, we need to be part of the discussion to ensure that any policy protects the First Amendment, encourages innovation and fosters a stronger news ecosystem for our communities and our democracy.

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