Occupational licensure for journalists would keep news companies from having to compete with low-quality substitutes for their services. This would make news companies more willing to “invest in occupation-specific human capital, because they will be more able to recoup the full returns to their investment,” according to economist Morris Kleiner.
This theory is borne out in the actual journalism industry. Out of newspaper, magazine and online news, magazines have the fewest low-quality substitutes, because the high costs of publishing a glossy magazine serve as a barrier to entry. The quality of magazine writing (excluding tabloid magazines, of course) is also generally seen as better than that of newspapers or websites.
This suggests that barriers to entry are effective in increasing quality of news writing. Without the low-quality substitutes of Web news, traditional news companies might be more willing to invest in expensive investigative projects, expand foreign bureaus instead of close them, and pursue a higher quality of reporting.
The public might also have better faith in the work of journalists, if it is not lumped together with the work of disreputable bloggers who don’t check their facts and, at times, fabricate news. The increasing blurring between punditry and factual reporting has made the public more skeptical toward the field as a whole. In fact, the public’s trust in journalists has been plummeting over the past seven years, according to the British research firm YouGov.
For all the benefits that licensure could provide, there are very few journalists who seriously support the licensure of reporters. The field is pretty unanimously against it, as much as reporters bemoan their low pay and the financial woes of their industry.
The reason is mainly that journalists believe licensure would hurt freedom of the press.
Occupational licensure means governmental control. A trade association could attempt to set its own standards for issuing licenses and try to prevent unlicensed workers from plying the trade, but these measures would have no teeth unless backed by threat of governmental fines or prosecution.
An occupational license would have to be government-regulated to have effect. This fact in itself will probably prevent journalists from ever seeking a system of licensure. A government-regulated press could no longer carry out its watchdog role, with the threat on a yanked license hanging over its head.
The market value of journalists’ work is partly based on the assumption that they are beholden to nobody and are providing an unbiased perspective. Without this independence, their work has much less value to readers.
Gunter, Joel. “Trust in journalists in steep decline, says YouGov research.” Journalism.co.uk. Sept. 23, 2010
Kleiner, Morris M. “Occupational Licensing.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol. 14, No. 4, Autumn 2000, pp. 189-202