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Beyond the bootstrap fallacy: Public service journalism deserves public funding

Joe Amditis
Center for Cooperative Media
3 min readSep 12

When you walk into a public library, you are surrounded by rows and rows of books, all available to you free of charge. Libraries have long been an embodiment of public service. They’re the cornerstone of informed communities and are publicly funded without question.

Now, imagine if someone suggested that we fund local libraries only until they can operate on membership fees and late charges.

Sounds ridiculous, right? Of course it does.

It’s obvious that free public libraries are a vital and worthwhile public service that deserve public funding. Yet, when it comes to local journalism — a service as crucial to democracy as libraries are to education — that’s the message we often hear from journalism funders.

The buzzword in journalism funding circles is “sustainability.”

The idea is to give newsrooms just enough money to get by until they can eventually sustain themselves through ad revenue, subscriptions, memberships, and other market-based funding sources. But let’s pause and consider this: Why is the onus on journalism to become a self-sustaining entity when other public services are not (and should not be) held to the same standard?

This bootstrap mentality — the idea that one should be self-sufficient and succeed without external help — is deeply ingrained in American culture. However, this mentality is fundamentally counterproductive and out of place when applied to public service journalism.

Asking a newsroom to pull itself up by its bootstraps is like asking a public park to generate revenue by charging for the air people breathe while walking through it.

Journalism is a public good, just like clean air or public education. And we shouldn’t be afraid to fund it like one.

Public goods have two main characteristics: they are non-excludable and non-rivalrous. This means that no one can be excluded from using them, and one person using them doesn’t reduce their availability to others.

Journalism plays a pivotal role in democracy. It keeps the public informed, holds power to account, and provides a platform for community voices. Just as we wouldn’t expect fire stations to hold bake sales to keep running, we shouldn’t expect newsrooms to rely solely on ad revenue to fulfill their civic duties.

The conversation needs to shift from “How can public funding help newsrooms become sustainable?” to “How can public funding continuously support the vital service that journalism provides?”

Countries like Norway, Sweden, and Germany offer substantial public funding for journalism — and their democracies are better for it. They recognize that an informed citizenry is invaluable and are willing to invest in it, year after year.

So maybe we should stop treating public service journalism as a business that’s failed to monetize its product effectively.

Instead, we should understand and fund it for what it is: a cornerstone of democracy that deserves public funding, not just as a stopgap measure, but as a long-term investment in the health of our society.

Disclosure: The NJ Civic Information Consortium, the first statewide experiment in public funding for local news in the nation, is housed at Montclair State University alongside the Center for Cooperative Media. I am also a big fan and proponent of public funding and have frequently argued in favor of it over the last decade.

Joe Amditis is assistant director of products and events at the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at or on Twitter at @jsamditis.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with operational and project funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, NJ Civic Information Consortium, Rita Allen Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and the Independence Public Media Foundation. For more information, visit



Joe Amditis
Center for Cooperative Media

Associate director of products + events, Center for Cooperative Media; host + producer, WTF Just Happened Today podcast.

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