The news industry has had a rough go of it in recent years. While some news outlets are able to sustain themselves on a healthy dose of subscriptions and advertising revenues, many digital newsrooms and local outlets have suffered. Quality reporting at the state and local levels is particularly vulnerable. News deserts, areas without any local newsrooms, are widespread throughout the country. If implemented, a Universal Basic Income (UBI), what is in essence a universal supplemental income program or “Social Security for All,” may be the policy to help revive local reporting.
Proponents of UBI often remark that such a policy would help to establish a baseline of economic security in a world of underemployment, the gig/service economy, and wage stagnation. If this argument proves true, a UBI may also serve to allow local journalists and newsrooms to sustain themselves despite economic uncertainty, transforming news deserts into fertile ground for local reporting.
To clarify, I am not referring to a UBI or a wage subsidy specifically for journalists or a scheme like the UK’s BBC. Such a system might lead to punitive actions being taken against journalists for reporting that government officials do not like. I am speaking more broadly about how a UBI may affect journalists.
It is worth noting that UBI gives many people hesitation. UBI is not well-studied, but efforts are underway to better understand its potential impacts. Preliminary work out of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice shows promising results.
This is not to say that a UBI is the only answer to the financial problems the press faces. Outlets across the country are experimenting with a number of different models. For example, Civil has launched a journalism network built on blockchain technology and Civil’s proprietary cryptocurrency, CVL tokens. As interesting an idea as this is, I find it hard to believe that this model will be sustainable given that the public’s understanding of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies is limited. In Academical’s interview with the Virginia Mercury’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Zullo, we discussed how their outlet operates without revenue, at least for the time being, by relying on investor dollars.
In speaking about the financial conditions of the press, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen said,
“They’re so weakened, they’re so fragmented now, that there’s no great role models in the press anymore that everybody will follow. Individual reporters have to be willing to stand up themselves because institutions today are, generally, too weak to do it. And so, it really comes down to, as a reporter, stand up for your own story. If you do, you’ll ultimately be proven right.”
It is possible that a UBI will provide individual reporters and journalistic institutions the necessary strength to thrive.
Why It Matters
The nearly 2,000 year old philosophical question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” loosely translates to, “Who watches the watchmen?” Underpinning the question are the matters of power and oversight. The United States Constitution tackles this question in two ways.
First, the government is structured such that we have a separation of powers between the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of government. In theory, this system allows for each of the respective branches to provide checks and balances on the other two, i.e., oversight.
Second, the first amendment establishes that the government make no law abridging the freedom of the press. It is incumbent upon the press to report on news, facts, policy and politics, and, most important of all, to provide additional government oversight. Journalists police the police, oversee the overseers, and hold power to account. The press is called the fourth branch of government for good reason; it serves a role that, in many cases, the government cannot and should not reasonably be expected to serve itself.
Voice of America aside, this country does not have a state-run media operation and I see no reason to believe that one will soon be established on the domestic front. As terrifying as that sort of propaganda machine would be, equally terrifying is the loss of local press outlets across the country. As news deserts become more prevalent, necessary journalism is suffocated out of existence and oversight dwindles. A UBI may provide much needed oxygen.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.