Today, democracy is challenged by the structures of the digital media landscape, as public interest media, especially local journalism, has shrunk dramatically, replaced by “online content mills.” Nevertheless, a comprehensive framework that systematically addresses funding, transparency, and distribution can restore journalism to its rightful place as a fourth estate that guards truth, holds power to account, and enables effective democratic deliberation and decision-making.
There are several emerging models for revitalizing public interest journalism. With the decline of the traditional advertising revenue model, independent news sites are increasingly turning to subscriptions and philanthropy. We argue, however, that there is a precedent, need, and ability to build a robust public funding model to support public interest journalism in the Digital Age.
At the dawn of broadcasting, Western democracies created public broadcasting services, including the BBC in the United Kingdom and NPR in the United States, to provide news and scientific information in addition to other cultural programming. These services were publicly-funded and provided with a means of distribution. This type of model can be adapted to ensure that news and information needed for democracy are available in the new media environment. This approach would not simply seek to turn back the clock or fund the incumbent institutions that dominated in the pre-social-media era, nor would it create a new public news service, like the BBC. Instead, we propose creating a fund for public interest media. Funding could come from a fee levied on the significant advertising revenue that digital platforms earn.55 In this way, digital platforms would be sharing revenue earned on near monopolies that undermine journalism’s previous business model. This proposal, in essence, would be a “sin tax” on engagement-derived revenue that poses harm to the information ecosystem, with the revenue repurposed towards public interest journalism.