| The gulf between what newspapers can do and what the public needs them to do has grown so vast that the journalism industry requires a new system of public subsidies to fulfill its democratic role, a leading media professor told an audience at Suffolk University.
“The prospect of journalism throwing itself on the generosity of the public is not outlandish,” Professor Paul Starr of Princeton University said during a presentation on “Public Accountability After the Age of Newspapers,” sponsored by the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk University and the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service.
Paying for a public good
“Journalism produces a public good, and we may be forced to pay for it in new ways,” said Starr, author of The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications and co-founder of the American Prospect magazine.
While acknowledging that creating subsidies would be intricate and controversial, Starr said they could work if they adhered to three major principles:
1. They would have to be “platform neutral,” meaning they would not favor print, for example, while ignoring news-oriented Web sites or niche publications.
2. They would have to be “viewpoint neutral,” meaning they would not favor any political or social perspective.
3. They would be available to for-profit and non-profit news entities. "Newspapers need to continue to play a central role in politics and the public discourse,” Starr said. “The public must support that.”
The forum featured two respondents to Professor Starr, Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, and Dan Kennedy, professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a well-regarded expert on new media and micro-journalism.
Editor wary of public funding
Baron said he agreed with many of Starr’s points but was adamantly opposed to the idea of public subsidies.
“I don’t particularly agree on the notion of public subsidies for our business -- I don’t want them, I would like to stay away from them, I think they compromise us in big ways,” he said.
Kennedy offered an optimistic view of the small, aggressive journalism taking place in cities and towns that have been left bereft of newspapers and local coverage because of closures, cutbacks by chains, and the industry’s overall economic collapse.
“Online news projects at the community level” are growing and are often run by veteran reporters and citizen journalists who have made a special study of pivotal local issues, Kennedy said.
Those sites “stand as insurance” that smaller communities will have important coverage in the event that larger media outlets fail.