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Aug. 28, 2009, 10:54 a.m.

A plan to support creative work — 100 government dollars at a time

The air’s been thick this summer with new proposals for taxpayer-supported journalism, from tax exemptions to government grants to endless court battles. This sort of talk ruffles people who are rightly skeptical of government-run media.

But in 2003, as the music industry was disintegrating, lefty economist Dean Baker floated an idea for government funding of journalists, artists and other creative workers that would keep media purse strings out of government hands. Instead, every adult in the country would get a transferable $100 “artistic freedom voucher” once a year, which could be cashed in only by someone putting new intellectual property — anything from databases to photos to drum solos — into the public domain.

Believe in your local transit blog? Send them some free money, courtesy Uncle Sam. Want to stick it to Keith Olbermann? Mail your voucher to Bill O’Reilly.

Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in D.C., acknowledges that his plan would be arbitrary, chaotic, and vulnerable to hucksters of all stripes.

In other words, American media consumers would feel right at home.

Baker wrote in his original proposal:

In exchange for receiving AFV support, creative workers would be ineligible for copyright protection for a significant period of time (e.g. five years)…The AFV would create a vast amount of uncopyrighted material. A $100 per adult voucher would be sufficient to pay 500,000 writers, musicians, singers, actors, or other creative workers $40,000 a year. All of the material produced by these workers would be placed in the public domain where it could be freely reproduced.

Wanting to find out more, I got Baker on the phone, then summoned my inner Deborah Solomon (turns out she’s much nerdier than the real one) and condensed our conversation into an edited Q&A.

Flip below the fold for Baker’s thoughts on good media citizenship, publicly funded voyeurism, and how a local voucher system could turn your town into a journalism incubator. (And please tip your hat with me to Ezra Klein, who’s been talking up Baker’s proposal for years.)

You haven’t spelled out a process for determining who is or isn’t an “artist” or “journalist.” That seems like the point where this would run into political trouble. I don’t think so. Actually, nonprofits are the model here: you rely on your self-assertion. It’s very similar to registering as a nonprofit. [At CEPR, Baker’s nonprofit think tank] we have to say what we do, but the IRS doesn’t evaluate us.

What about the guy who decides to “report” on nude beaches by putting videos on YouTube? Would taxpayers be willing to support that? Some people might be unhappy with it, but it’s not really that different than what exists today. if I want to give $100,000 to an organization that supports people taking pictures of people at nude beaches, then that would be a tax deduction.

Seems like this could lead to the creation of a government credentialing system for journalists. Isn’t that a dangerous precedent? It already exists (for reporters covering Congress). This goes the opposite direction.

Big news outlets would have an advantage in getting donors’ attention. How would people find small outlets worth supporting? I’d imagine an awful lot of money would go to intermediaries. They’d give (vouchers) to an organization that supports journalism, an organization that supports blues music, whatever.

What if I call myself a journalist, but my publication just makes things up? Do I still qualify for a voucher? Maybe it is all lies. If you have something to show, and some people who are prepared to support it — well, that’s the way it goes. And that’s how it works today. If people are prepared to buy the paper, advertise in it, (publishers) get to do it.

Good point. Will everybody send their vouchers to Us Weekly or Fark? Sure, some people would treat it as a joke, but I think people would take it seriously.

I guess folks might start to feel like giving out their annual voucher is part of citizenship. They get to, in effect, cast their vote: I like this, I don’t like that.

Would you want to prevent companies from kicking back a share of their voucher income to the donors? I think that has to be just banned. On a small scale, someone could probably do it. “I’m going to give you $100, you’re going to give me $100.” Well, that could happen and we’ll never get caught, because we each ripped off 100 bucks from the government. However, if I got 1,000 people to do it, then I probably would get caught.

So there’d be some enforcement costs. I haven’t done any calculations. If you look at the opportunities for fraud that exist with the charitable tax credit, they’re actually much, much larger. Suppose you risk two years of prison for 900 bucks. Would you do that? Some people might, but I don’t think most people would.

You envision a national voucher system. Would one work on a state or local level? I’ve actually been intrigued by that. It could be an economic driver. Some communities or states could get out front — they could make themselves sort of an artistic Mecca.

Or a journalistic Mecca. Who’d want one of those? Actually, you could imagine a journalism school. If you had a number of good reporters, I could imagine people would come there to study, learn from some good reporters.

Some people want community foundations to support newspapers, sort of like NPR. I’m afraid that’d pull coverage away from poor people’s issues like crime and social services and toward rich people’s issues like development and taxation. Where do you think the incentives would fall in a voucher system? I think a voucher-funded system would focus more on the concerns of low- and moderate-income people. There would be news outlets framing their pitch in exactly these terms — that they cover the news that matters to ordinary people. Unlike the current system, the voucher system would effectively provide this downscale audience with purchasing power.

Your 2003 paper assumed that vouchers would generate economic savings to offset the cost of the program: for example, you figured the total national cost of print advertising would fall by $5 to $10 billion. The idea, if I’m understanding it, is that these vouchers would drive down the cost of producing news media, forcing publishers to charge less for advertising and cutting the overall cost of ad space or time. Yeah. They’d have access to all sorts of material, in effect without paying for it. So you’d expect advertising to cost less in that context.

And a voucher-funded news outlet could still make money by advertising? That’s right.

What would you spend your voucher on? Boy, I’d have to think about that. I’m tempted to say jazz music.

Photo of Baker by Keith Ivey used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 28, 2009, 10:54 a.m.
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