Vouchers for the Media?
As an employee of a newspaper who is deeply invested in the survival of this industry, of course I'd pay $5 a month for the New York Times. Who wouldn't? No one. Newspapers are awesome.
On the other hand, the answer is that, five months ago, I might not have paid five dollars. Not that I don't think the New York Times worth it. But maybe I wouldn't have gotten around to it. And since I'd forgotten for a week already, I'd have been reading more Washington Post and more Wall Street Journal and more Los Angeles Times. I'd be missing the columnists, but Mark Thoma excerpts most of Paul Krugman. Maybe I'd have coughed up the money because I missed David Leonhardt and the Sunday Magazine. Maybe.
But that ambivalence is entirely a function of the low cost of replacement. If the New York Times locks me out, The Washington Post probably won't. But what if The Washington Post did it too? And the LA Times? And CNN? And all the major news organizations? Then I'd have to pay. Or ask the Justice Department to go after the papers for cartel behavior.
Which is, of course, the problem with that strategy. But the major newspapers are in a bit of a collective action problem. Since they offer basically equivalent products, none can really go behind a pay wall without risking a major loss of readers to their competitors. They're like crabs pulling each other down in the tank.
I don't really have an answer for that problem. But it does remind me of one way public subsidies can be structured: Imagine every American had a $5 voucher to put toward the media institution of his or her choice. That's all the voucher could do. And so all Americans just chose their favorite outlet and typed in, say, their Social Security number. Could be their local paper. Could be NPR. Could be the New York Times. Could be the Weekly Standard. Since the recipients of the money would be decided by individual Americans, the newspapers would be protected from political meddling. Since they'd want the maximum number of committed readers, they'd have more incentive to compete for their business. Dean Baker proposed a variant of this idea for funding the arts, but I don't see any reason the same approach couldn't work for the media.
July 10, 2009; 5:30 PM ET
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