Subsidize Investigative Journalism

At Cato Unbound, Paul Starr calls for an investigative journalism subsidy:

Many regional papers in the United States have cut back or shut down their Washington bureaus, reducing coverage of their region’s representatives in Congress and the implications of federal policy for their area. The analogous process has also happened within the states; in the past five years, according to surveys by the American Journalism Review, the number of reporters covering state government has dropped by one-third … Will non-commercial patrons step in to rectify this imbalance and finance more public-service journalism? Perhaps, but I see no reason to assume so. …

Public policy in the United States didn’t always put the public press at a relative disadvantage. Beginning in the 1790s, when most papers were partisan, Congress subsidized their development through postal policy. The postal rates for sending newspapers through the mail were set below cost, and editors could exchange copies with one another at no charge. Congress also refrained from taxing newspapers, a legacy of colonial opposition to Britain’s Stamp Act. …

While partisan journalism has a legitimate place, we also need sources of reported news that can be widely trusted.  … Government subsidies that are viewpoint-neutral and that do not give officials any discretion may be a less constraining method of supporting journalism than leaving it to dependence on patrons. Today, any such subsidies should be not only viewpoint-neutral, but also platform-neutral. We need the modern equivalent of the postal subsidies of the early American republic, except that there ought to be no bias in favor of publications that appear in print.

At a modest cost, investigative journalists add enormous value to the health of our political system, and media firms capture only a small fraction of that value.  This sets a strong presumption of a market failure, and hence a strong argument for neutral subsidies.   I completely agree: let’s raise low-official-discretion subsidies of political investigative journalism.  There is clearly a tradeoff between how narrowly targeted is any subsidy, and how much discretion that produces.  But many available options seem better than the status quo.

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  • Jason Briggeman

    There’s no reason you can’t trust a “partisan” media outlet — Democrats, Republicans, and others are all capable of doing good research. Plus, those who overtly take a position on an issue are actually motivated to investigate; they have something to gain or to prove. What incentive do outlets that aggressively promote an aura of “neutrality” around themselves have to investigate anything? By choosing a target for investigation, they expose themselves to charges of non-neutrality. And what do journalists who have successfully promoted themselves to their audience as being “neutral” have to prove, anyway? Ordinary claims require no evidence.

    An example: What’s the most obvious shared characteristic among those media outlets that are doing the most to investigate (or at least discuss) the U.S. government’s torturing of innocents? Of course, it’s their liberal “bias”. That ideological positioning, in and of itself, does not discredit what’s said in’s Unclaimed Territory column or on MSNBC’s “Countdown” program. Glenn Greenwald is a liberal, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do excellent, aggressive investigative reporting. What “neutral” journalist or organization works as hard as he does on the torture issue?

    • A neutral subsidy could be taken by partisan media.

  • It will be difficult to separate investigative journalism from entertainment news. Whatever the subsidy structure, most of the subsidy will probably be captured by someone else than the intended group.

  • Constant

    This is from Cato? The libertarian think tank?

    • Cato Unbound invites contributions from non-libertarians, and Starr didn’t even have the lead essay in this edition.

  • josh

    Investigative journalism does not seem to have been successful in the past of moving public opinion in the direction of truth, but rather has succeeded in distorting people’s universe of data points via selectively exposing scandalous behavior. Unless you completely reform everything about what it means to be a journalist or the ways in which a person can be influential in government, this is a bad idea.

  • Robert Koslover

    This experiment has already been done. It is called the BBC. And it is a viciously-partisan, utterly-corrupt, oppressively-expensive blot upon Britain that the public is literally forced, by law, to pay for whether they want to or not. So y’all want to bring that brand of authoritarianism here too, right? Why are there so few defenders of freedom left in this “land of the free?” Isn’t there any role that the Federal Government should not have? Why is it so difficult to keep the hands of meddling left-wing do-gooders away from free markets?

    • James K

      What Robin is talking about is a neutral subsidy on investigative journalism i.e. a subsidy on all investigative journalism, no matter who does it. This is not the same as a government-subsidised journalism agency like the BBC.

      • Robert Koslover

        Sorry James, but that is simply impossible. If it were truly neutral, every single person in the US could iimmediately declare themselves to be journalists and demand an equal subsidy. After all, anyone with a blog is a journalist. Robin Hanson is a journalist, for example. To prevent such “abuses”, the Government would no doubt certify only some people as actual “journalists.” And I have little doubt that any “journalist” who sufficiently angered powerful members of the government would soon find his/her credentials as a “journalist” revoked. That’s what an ever-growing government does. It controls people and destroys their freedoms.

      • Yes James, exactly.

    • The BBC is not particularly expensive nor “viciously” partisan, whatever that means, and probably no more corrupt than any other organization of similar size.

      More importantly, under what addle-brained definition does modest funds collected for a broadcaster that many people do voluntarily choose to watch over competitors constitute “authoritarianism”? You are diluting the definition of the word beyond all hope of recognition and I’m not sure you even know what it means.

      Why is it so difficult to keep the hands of meddling left-wing do-gooders away from free markets?

      Why does noone ever care about efficient markets or dealing with externalities?

      • Constant


        Insults are not helpful. If you have an argument, it can stand on its own two feet without peppering it with abuse in an attempt to make it stronger. You are here taking Robert to task for the strength of his emotional reaction to the BBC, which also does not contribute. Looking at his two comments, he has an argument which you have not even touched, the meat of it at 11 pm (before your reply). The argument is that the BBC is an already-existing example of the plan in action and it is partisan (if you think it is not partisan that’s fine for now, we can argue about it later; however, telling me – I happen to agree that it is partisan – that I’m “addle-brained” for finding it to be partisan is not persuasive), and that there is a simple reason why subsidies cannot be neutral, as he explains at 11 pm.

      • Constant: I am taking Robert to task for being blinded by partisan bias and detached from anything approaching reality. What I called “addle-brained” is not thinking the BBC is partisan (almost any news source is, though I’m skeptical that they’re worse than others), nor thinking that subsidies in this case are an unworkable idea (I agree).

        Rather, I was referring to calling the BBC’s existence “authoritarianism”, which borders on the territory of “not even wrong” and strongly discourages me from responding to his other arguments due to moderately strong evidence of systemic irrationality.

        What confuses me, in the end, is the inexplicable degree of right-leaning partisan bias (not the obvious libertarianism, but blind US-right-wing kneejerk responses) in some comments on this site, as evidenced by the handful of crackpots that came out when Robin posted on CO2-driven global warming a while back.

    • The picture that right-wing Americans have of British institutions like the BBC or the NHS seems so alien to practically everyone in the UK. The BBC has its failings but it is deservedly one of the most respected news organisations in the world.

  • Captain Oblivious

    I’m thinking the powers-that-be will manage to direct most of the subsidies towards investigations of the opposition party!

  • here’s a weird idea–i don’t know if it actually makes any practical sense, but maybe laws could be passed that rewarded whistle-blowers by giving them a percentage of the money it’s estimated they saved the public.

    • That would also be a good idea, if a low-discretion way can be found to implement it.

  • Requia

    Bad idea. There’s precedence in the US for allowing restrictions on free speech if an organization gets tax breaks or government money. This could be used to kill the free press altogether down the road.

  • Phil

    How about rewards instead of subsidies? A fixed pool of money goes for prizes every year, and a panel votes on which investigative stories deserve how much of the money.

    You could have a local, state, and national prize pool. In the case of large media outlets, the prize could be payable in corporate tax credits, the idea being that breaking an important story is providing a public good that’s at least as beneficial to society as that amount of tax.

    • Robert Koslover

      How about letting the free market reward the companies and individuals that provide the best services for the best prices to the consuming public? Why must the government be involved? Why must I pay taxes to support your objectives? If you want to subsidize news or reporters, why don’t you pull out your own personal checkbook and write a check right now, to your favorite investigative journalist? Why must I be forced, by the law, to support your notions of what society needs in journalism? On what legal or moral basis do you believe you have the right to steal (yes, that’s exactly what it is) my money to support your journalism-rewards program? Where in the Constitution is subsidizing the news media (and forcibly taxing the public for this purpose) an official role and power of the US Government? Do you seriously wish to argue it is part of providing for the common defense? Regulating interstate trade? Minting coins and stamps? Where? Or do you even care that we are (or once were) a FREE people and that our Constitution is supposed the law of the land? By that law, people have a right to their property. You have NO right whatsoever to seize my property (i.e., my wealth) to support your personal journalism-rewards program, no matter how deserving it may be. Can you seriously deny that America’s founding fathers would be aghast at much of what has been suggested at this blog today? And in this matter, I stand with them!

      • Doug S.

        Since you want to be pedantic about it:

        Furthermore, not everyone lives in the United States, and even if Congress can’t do it, a state government certainly could.

        Oh, and what makes that money yours to begin with, anyway? There’s more to life than property rights, you know. Or do you? 😛

      • Dan

        Because the “free market” doesn’t work. Robin has identified a serious market failure when it comes to investigative journalism.

        Regarding the rest: (mine, Mine, MINE!… stamps foot) LOL. Ever heard of the sixteenth amendment. And I don’t care what some long dead people thinks, the land belongs to the living.

      • Constant

        Because the “free market” doesn’t work.

        What if nothing works better then the market? Then it’s not the case of a market failure – or shouldn’t be considered such. If “market failure” is defined so that you can “identify” it without first demonstrating that something would work better, then it’s a joke concept. It’s not at all clear that a government subsidy would work better. All I see here is some fairly weak speculation that it might.

  • Jeff

    I think the argument is that this is a reasonably cheap way of supporting the goal of clean government. It’s true that clean government, or non-corrupt government, or non-abusive-of-power government isn’t written into the Constitution that way. I find it relatively obvious that such a lack is evidence of the Constitution being, as I’m sure the framers would agree, somewhat incomplete, or at least inexhaustive. That seems reasonable to me.

    I’m not actually surprised, because I have my suspicions about you, but I would be surprised–were I to know you to be a reasonable Conservative with which I, often a Liberal, could find common ground–that you wouldn’t support the goal of investigating those in power. It seems like a very antigovernment stand.

    I guess the big question is, how can we trust those paid by the government to investigate the government, to do a good job? Seems almost like a case for providing an investigative journalism fund for China, and hoping that they decide to provide one for us. We pay for the most embarrassing things that can be found out about them, to make us look better, which will help us in politically capital-intensive alliances (except with China).

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  • I’m open to this idea, but how do you decide who to give the money to?

  • bee

    No reason to subsidize what the world wants less of unless the goal is to create waste

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  • He who pays controls: If journalists receive a subsidy, they will be even more the propagandar arm of the state than they are already. Look at education.

    Thus the effect will not be cleaner government, but more corrupt government: Swedes have government subsidized journalism. In arguing with Swedes on the internet, I often find that not only do they have entirely deluded and insane beliefs about the US, for example the belief that slave markets are still being conducted, that the seriously ill are allowed to die in the streets, that millions of children are starving, but that they also have beliefs about Sweden that are similarly deluded in the reverse direction – for example that Sweden has no drug war because it has no drug problem, that Sweden is free from racial or religious tensions, that Sweden never employed state sponsored sterilization to eliminate inferior races, and so on and so forth.

  • Agreed. So what’s the low-cost, low-discretion, difficult-to-game method of allocating funds? I assume one component would be a series of tests which can be performed by someone reading the work (doubtless there would be automatic computer-driven ones too; at the very least, a plagiarism index of some kind). One I’d vote for is a distinction between journalism, which requires commentary, and press, which only requires publishing.

    The low-discretion part of the idea is probably the most important one: of course, if the subsidy was allocated in proportion to how well the journalist had defended the government’s position, then I would be as saddened as anyone. However, if the metrics and/or standards for the funding were precise and difficult to alter, and the allocation was public, then that kind of favoritism would be extremely difficult to effect.

    It’s true that this would undermine journalistic independence from government in exchange for potentially increasing journalistic independence from corporations (the current paymasters). Pro-paycheck-giver bias will inevitably calm some potential anti-government sentiment, and what’s more, breed entitlement in this new generation of journalists. But hopefully a Journalists’ Lobby would prove less destructive than the, say, the Pharmaceutical Lobby.

  • Great post.

    This is something that I have wondered about for a long time, especially with the impending collapse of the old newspapers. The talk of “new media” and the internet as this “great equalizer” has left me wondering about the future of investigative journalism, a field which, it seems to me, has been dormant for a long time, even before the cutbacks outlined above.

    The cost of “access,” in particular, makes me question whether independent blogger-journalists/twitter-ers can fill such an important need.

    Some comments have noted the problem with gov’t-funded media–namely, that it would make journalists less likely to investigate government. If we accept that claim–that media outlets are reluctant to investigate their backers/funders–then the status quo, with advertisers funding news organizations, is equally unacceptable.

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