The era in which market-supported media will produce journalism sufficient to sustain democracy is ending, write Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, authors of "The Death and Life of American Journalism." If America is to have credible independent journalism, it will require public subsidies.

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AMERICA is now entering the second or third year — depending upon how one counts — of the uniformly recognized crisis in journalism. The market has lost interest in producing sufficient journalism, and there is no evidence that its interest is going to return in digital form. It is a process that may well lead to the end of the popular news as we have known it in just a few more years. There is no known way a free and self-governing society can survive without credible independent journalism, and the levels of political corruption and public ignorance and cynicism sure to come are striking.

As James Madison once noted, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.”

In short, we are at the point where we institute policies to see that a viable Fourth Estate — with paid journalists, editors, fact-checkers and independent competing newsrooms — exists, or we face a future Madison anticipated and dreaded.

As a working journalist and an academic who studies media systems, we recognize that the era in which market-supported media will produce journalism sufficient to sustain democracy is ending. If America is to have credible independent journalism, digital or otherwise, it will require public subsidies. To date, those who oppose subsidies cling dogmatically to the Manichaean view that any government intervention to save journalism will lead to certain tyranny.

We are sympathetic to this concern, but our own press history says different: Massive printing and postal subsidies were the order of the day from the dawn of the republic through much of the 19th century. The subsidies were established with the explicit intent of expanding the quantity, quality and range of journalism.

The champions and architects of press subsidies included Washington, Madison and Jefferson. If the U.S. devoted the same percentage of its gross domestic product to federal journalism subsidies in 2009 as it routinely did in the 1840s, the total would be more than $30 billion. In contrast, the federal subsidy in 2009 for all of public broadcasting was closer to $400 million.

The U.S. experience demonstrates that subsidies need not threaten freedom of the press. Postal subsidies applied to all newspapers, regardless of content or viewpoint. Even the printing subsidies were spread around to all major parties and factions. Historians who have considered the matter are unanimous in recognizing that the extraordinary and diverse print culture that resulted from these subsidies was the foundation for the expansion and consolidation of American democracy, and the preservation and expansion of our individual freedoms. These subsidies made possible much of the abolitionist press that led the fight against slavery.

More contemporary subsidies, administered by Gens. Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, helped build the democratic press and broadcast systems of postwar Germany and Japan. Neither general was willing to wait for the market to bestow a free press at that critical juncture.

In moments of crisis, the central and indispensable role of journalism for democracy becomes self-evident. We are in such a crisis moment now.

Massive journalism subsidies are widespread in the most democratic nations. Far from leading to less freedom and justice, these subsidies correlate with positive indicators of a good society. In The Economist’s annual Democracy Index, which evaluates nations on the basis of the functioning of government, civic participation, civil liberties, political culture and pluralism, it is striking that the top-ranked nations all provide large press and public media subsidies. Sweden and Norway, which rank first and second, maintain subsidies which on a per-capita basis would amount to around $30 billion annually if the U.S., which ranks 18th, adopted similar measures.

It is worth noting that all of the top-ranked countries with large public media/press subsidies also have substantial and profitable independent commercial media sectors, so the two realms may be mutually supportive as much as they are competitive. Freedom House, the pro-private media organization that annually ranks press freedom internationally, has the keenest antennae around for any government infringement on private press freedoms. Strikingly, Freedom House ranks the heavy press-subsidizing nations of Northern Europe in the top six spots on its 2008 list of nations with the freest news media. The United States ranks in a tie for 21st.

Our point is not that enlightened press subsidies will automatically produce desired outcomes, but, rather, that they are, at the very least, compatible with such outcomes. America can and must have a free press — be it print or digital — and we will if we get serious about making interventions grounded in the traditions of our founders. We believe citizens, journalists and policymakers will come to recognize the democratic necessity of subsidies. We do not have time to lose.

Robert W. McChesney, left, is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. John Nichols writes for The Nation and the Capital Times in Madison, Wisc. They are the authors of “The Death and Life of American Journalism.”