That's Dumb-o, not the Disney Elephant.
If Michael Moore's "Sicko" makes entertainment of the case of the sickness of America's health non-system, it also raises curious questions about who pays for stuff that does public good.
Moore deftly shows us teachers, firefighters and policemen who do society's bidding, providing free services to all and paid by all, in these case by tax dollars. His argument of course is that health care is the same kind of need, the same kind of right.
Which got me thinking. What are the essentials of American daily life? Food, shelter, protection, education. How about the free flow of useful information in a democracy?
Coverage of what the government and other power forces are up to? Letting the people know how their tax dollars are being spent across town and in Iraq?
That's of course where the press started, reporing on public affairs. Sure Lindsay Lohan and Barry Bonds offer entertaining coverage, but they are not the reason the press is important.
For much of the last century, we didn't have to consider whether we needed to put the work of the press alongside those other public needs. The market took care of that question. Department store ads, classified ads and Sunday circulars threw off 20%+ profits and paid the salaries of newspaper people. Advertising in magazines and on broadcast TV paid those reporters and editors.
But that historical and apparently accidental alignment of lucrative advertising and journalism is coming to an abrupt end. And another apparent accident of history -- the alignment of search engines like Google and Yahoo and related, measurable advertising -- is just beginning.
So we better look at another model, pronto.
No, that's not an argument for a nationally provided, taxpayed-financed single-payer system of journalism.
There are many potentials and alternatives, even as public (one- or two-class) newspaper companies struggle to transform themselves. Among those alternatives:
---Taking companies private in the hands of people like the Sulzbergers and Grahams, whose journalistic bonafides are clear and who belief private is the way to take the enterprises out of harm's way as we make the huge digital;
---Finding partners who don't have names like Sulzberger, Graham or McClatchy, but who are willing to invest a billion here, a billion there, but for a long-term and for the sake of the public good. We seen people like Brad Greenspan and Ron Burkle making noises that sound like they might be good partners. Surely, there are others.
---Funding city/regional-based online-oriented public media. Joel Kramer, former publisher and editor of the Star Tribune, is now dipping his toe into that water. He says a metro-area business/public service could be built, and without a paper's legacy costs succeed. What's clear here is that there are many people who have left the industry who have the money, the connections and passion to dive into what comes next. These enterprises can be start absolutely fresh or build on the bootstrap models that have bravely pioneered the idea, like Mike Orren's Pegasus News In Dallas/Fort Worth.
---Other public ownership models. The NPR model is the obvious one. We know it's provided a great new journalistic force, a part of many of our days. What can we learn, discard and apply from the model?