Media vouchers

Anticipating the supposed upcoming collapse of the corporate news system, Robert McChesney and John Nichols are looking for ways to fund the news media (book, interview). They support a voucher system.

The idea is very simple: every American adult gets a $200 voucher she can use to donate money to any nonprofit news medium of her choice. […] This funding mechanism is the centerpiece of our policy recommendations, and we mean for it to apply to public, community and all other nonprofit broadcasters and the new generation of post-corporate newspapers as well as Internet upstarts. […] Qualifying media ought not, in our view, be permitted to accept advertising; this is a sector that is to have a direct and primary relationship with its audience. These media can accept tax-deductible donations from individuals or foundations to supplement their income. […] We would also suggest that for a medium to receive funds it would have to get […] at least 100 people to sign on.

The authors do not state this explicitly, but it seems that their conception of the voucher system for news media is very similar to the standard conception of the electoral system for government. Both are conceived as “free market” systems in which the “consumers” are put on equal footing by allocating equal “buying power” to each citizen. Thus, the main elements of both the media vouchers system and the electoral system are:

  1. Each citizen is endowed with identical resources (a voucher or a vote).
  2. Entrepreneurs (media organizations, political parties) compete for those resources.

These two elements are then supposed to lead to representation of the interests of the “consumers”. Indeed the hopes of McChesney and Nichols for the effects of the voucher system can almost literally be quoted as the supposed benefits of the electoral system (substituting “votes” for “vouchers” and “political parties” for “news media”):

This strategy […] allows newcomers to enter the fray and hence encourages innovation. A group can raise start-up funds from donations or philanthropy, get started, and then appeal directly for voucher support. It produces intense competition because a medium cannot take its support for granted. It rewards initiative and punishes sloth. It is democratic because rich and poor get the same voucher. […] [T]his approach will give public community media as well as post-corporate newspapers an incentive to earn their support not from investors and advertisers but from the people they are trying to reach. And we also know that every struggling new online journalism outfit we talk to would love to have an opportunity to compete for these funds. […] [T]he voucher system rebuilds the lost link between journalists and the communities that sustain their journalism. […]

Within a few years of the program’s development, we anticipate, the American people will have gravitated to the media they wish to see in place. The people will determine which institutions survive and thrive, which strikes us as both healthy and democratic. And, as long as people disagree, the systems that develop will be far more diverse in their viewpoints and perspectives than anything Americans have seen since the development of the commercial system 150 years ago.

Interestingly, McChesney and Nichols are not deterred,  or are even encouraged, by the influence that wealthy individuals and organizations may have under their proposed system (much like the influence such elements have in the electoral system). They seem to see no conflict between this effect and the supposed democratic nature of the system they tout:

The benefits of the [voucher] program are many. For instance, it gives the foundation community a coherent and necessary role to play. […] [T]hey can help launch new ventures, fund them for three to five years, and then see if there is popular support for the venture in the form of [vouchers]. In this model, philanthropists have much greater incentive to put money into journalism, because there is a way for their grants to lead to self-sustaining institutions.

Since it is unlikely that the authors are unaware of the failures of the electoral system, it is surprising that they are so enthusiastic to make a similar system into the “centerpiece” of their policy recommendations. It may be that they consider such a system the worst system except for all those other systems that have been tried from time to time.

If so, it may be time for considering a lottery based system for media production (again, the analogy to a similar system of government could be instructive).

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5 Responses

  1. […] 15, 2010 I posted on Equality-by-Lot a short critique of the proposal by McChesney and Nichols of financing public news media by distributing […]

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  2. McChesney gave a talk at Stanford several weeks ago. Unfortunately, he didn’t have copies of the book for sale. There was much discussion of the voucher proposal.

    Here’s one concern re: vouchers vs. sortition-controlled media. One of the major reasons for sortition is representativeness. You mention this yourself somewhere when you suggest that the problem with our media might be the non-representative nature of the boards running them. But I think most people would say, we don’t want every single media outlet to “look like America,” in the same way we might want our government to do so. There should be liberal publications, conservative publications, libertarian publications, socialist publications, green publications, etc. If we randomly selected boards of people to run our media outlets, we’d get a bunch of media outlets all of whom have the same basic editorial viewpoint. Our media should be diverse, and diversity and representativeness work against each other.

    I’m going to think more about these two proposals, but this concern was foremost on my mind.

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  3. My suggestion is that the citizen-editors would form groups of like-minded people and these would produce media. Just as you suggest, the representativeness would be across editor-boards not within them.

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  4. […] It is a sad state of affairs that a poorly argued blog post by a person of such low intellectual and moral standing would easily attract more attention than all the high quality material about sortition that is available. It is a reflection of the elitist nature of mass media today, and highlights the need for fundamental reform of this institution. […]

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  5. […] should have seen this coming: if McChesney and Nichols offered us a fix for elitist media by using media vouchers, Prof. Lessig will have us fix elitist government using democracy vouchers (book, article, […]

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