John Nichols and Robert McChesney’s new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism’’ (Nation), is rather sunnily subtitled “The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.’’ That seems overly optimistic from a pair of media players who have witnessed journalism’s steady decline firsthand. But the founders of the nonprofit group Free Press think the media can reinvigorate itself by changing some of its old ways - and by looking past the familiar scapegoats.
Both authors say they are tired of hearing the Internet used as an excuse for thousands of media layoffs and newspaper closings around the country. While they acknowledge the power of the Internet as a dynamic medium - Nichols claims to have been blogging since before there was a word for it - they insist that it’s no replacement for old-media journalism.
Nichols and McChesney (pictured), a professor of communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, instead have turned their focus on a novel but potentially divisive idea to save journalism: public support of major news outlets.
“We have to face up to the fact that journalism is not a viable commercial activity and should be considered a public service,’’ said McChesney.
The pair points to the early days of the republic for justification. Back then, they said, the Founding Fathers were concerned about cultural elites holding too much power. Statesmen like Jefferson, Washington, and Madison sponsored printing and postal subsidies for the fledgling American press. Without that government assistance, McChesney argues, commercial interests would not have supported American journalism through its infancy. The same, he says, is now true during the Fourth Estate’s current crisis.
“We have to accept the fact that the market isn’t going to solve it for us,’’ McChesney said, adding that government support of journalism is “in the DNA of our country.’’
Both Nichols and McChesney seem confident that Americans would go along with a plan to subsidize newspapers - even in the age of the Tea Party movement and a ballooning national deficit. Still, they concede that the idea’s success rides on how it is presented to the public.
The authors have already spoken to packed houses in Seattle, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. They’ll bring the debate to the Harvard Coop, 1400 Massachusetts Ave., in Cambridge, tonight at 7.