The vouchers, which would work in the same way as restaurant vouchers currently used in several countries, would be funded through a levy on internet service providers (ISPs), according to the National Union of Journalists in the UK (NUJ).
The idea was aired in a submission to the European Commission's consultation on creative industries, published in April (EurActiv 30/04/10).
Drafted by the NUJ's Brussels branch and its Continental European Council, the paper says ISPs earn billions every year by offering internet users access to content.
"They are free-riders making billions from content they have not had to fund, including, crucially, journalism," the NUJ says.
The proposal will be fiercely resisted by ISPs, but the journalists union says even a moderate levy would "easily fund journalism" produced online and offline.
It suggests the funds would be collected by governments and dispersed to households in the form of vouchers worth, say, €175. This could then be used to purchase any publication online or in print, provided it contained "hard news".
The aim, says the NUJ, is not simply to protect jobs but to preserve the democratic function of journalism. It could, according to the paper, even serve as a stimulus for the emergence of new publications as the choice of which media to support is left to the consumer.
Media market 'has failed'
The NUJ believes the market has failed and journalism is a public good in need of support.
"The market has failed. We must confront this truth. If we are comfortable with the state funding such items as opera and the ballet, which if left to the market would not survive, we must accept that if we desire journalism to survive and the market is not providing, the state must step in," the union says.
It argues changes to the media landscape have seen a decline in reporting standards, with newspapers and magazines closing foreign desks and slashing the resources available for covering courts, regions and the EU. What remains is "cheap and profitable" content, such as celebrity gossip.
The position paper lists 10 things that must be done to save journalism, including an end to copyright infringement, a ban on companies using internships as labour replacement, and the breakup of media corporations which own a concentration of media outlets.
"We hope the European Commission takes this and all our suggestions with the utmost seriousness. Nothing less than democracy is at stake," the NUJ concludes.
State intervention in media sparks controversy
The proposals are likely to meet with a backlash from ISPs and from those who oppose any form of state intervention in the media sector.
The NUJ also calls for an end to attacks on public service broadcasters developing online and mobile content. Private sector media firms have long argued against public broadcasters being allowed to expand into new media formats using government funds (EurActiv 03/07/09).
There has also been considerable attention given to the EU executive's plans to "embed" journalists with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso when he travels on EU business (EurActiv 25/06/10).
The European Parliament has also called on the media to help bridge the communication gap between the EU and its citizens, sparking concerns that Brussels is in danger of compromising the independence of state broadcasters (EurActiv 08/09/10).
MEPs backed a report by Danish MEP Morten Løkkegaard, who wants the Parliament's information offices to recruit experienced media professionals to help inform the public of its activities. However, UK Conservative MEP Emma McClarkin warned against forcing broadcasters to include more EU content or funding training courses for journalists in EU affairs.