Dave Cieslewicz, the former mayor of Madison, makes the case for taxpayer-funded news.
So, why not a Wisconsin Public Newspaper? Essentially it would apply the concept of WPR and WPT to a daily newspaper or online news source. Just like public radio and television, it could be funded in part by the government and in part by individual contributors. And, if it were just an online presence, it wouldn’t have the need for expensive printing costs or studios or broadcast facilities. Money could be invested in journalists and editors. What a concept.
The free market can be a wonderful thing. It can spark creativity and greater productivity and increase societal wealth. But the market doesn’t produce everything we want as a society. Sadly, the market is now failing to produce enough high-quality journalism. Good reporting is just too crucial to a good democracy to accept the market’s verdict.
It is no secret that the newspaper industry has been decimated by the shift in technology and culture. It is also no secret that good reporting is crucial to self-governance because people can only make decisions about things they know. This has been particularly problematic for smaller communities. There is still plenty of money in covering national stories on national platforms, but the cost of getting someone to cover a school board or planning commission has outstripped the public’s willingness to pay for it.
While he has an interesting solution, Cieslewicz’s idea misses two crucial points. First, if the news is funded by government, it cannot be trusted to objectively report on the people who control its funding. He cites NPR, WPR, and the BBC as examples of models that work, but do they? NPR and WPR have an exceedingly liberal bent and consistently support big government. The BBC is slightly better, but not much. As a facet of a bloated government, a government news outlet will naturally support bloated government. Also, in all three cases, they still have the problem of only having resources to cover state, national, and in the case of the BBC, international news. Local news is still unobtainable with those models sans a massive increase in funding.
The second point Cieslewicz misses is that the very technology that is destroying newspapers is providing avenues for more, and often better coverage of local news. He dismisses this notion with the example of himself. He admits that he doesn’t do much news generation and does mostly opinions on the news. This is true of most bloggers – including me. But that’s just Cieslewicz and me. Here in West Bend, while I occasionally engage in news generation (not as much as I used to), others do it as their primary format. Another local citizen, Judy Steffes, generates a tremendous amount of local news content on her Facebook page, Washington County Insider. Others, like Washington County Nosey Neighbor and Washington County Scanner, provide additional information. Then there are the countless individuals who attend meetings, see events, and post their stories in various outlets. No, it’s not “professional” reporting, but as a citizen, I know a lot more about what’s going on in my community from listening to the entire myriad of news sources that technology makes available.
Cieslewicz is nostalgic for the days of a handful of highly-paid professional newsmen who bring the news to the people. Those days are long gone. Instead, the people largely bring the news to themselves. And that’s a good thing.