Why local journalism must be considered infrastructure
President Biden’s infrastructure bill has sparked debate over what qualifies. Is broadband infrastructure? Of course it is — and so are other key components of our information systems, especially local journalism.
Local news serves our critical information needs, particularly regarding vital issues such as vaccines, elections and public safety. The newspaper industry, still our primary source of original reporting, has lost well over 50 percent of its workforce since the early 2000s, leading to hundreds of closures and news deserts across the country. No longer commercially viable, local journalism’s devastation will only worsen in the coming months and years.
Yet infrastructures must be maintained regardless of their profitability and such glaring market failure should necessitate government intervention. Public goods, after all, require public investments. Unfortunately, we often take such democratic infrastructure for granted, leading to neglect and disinvestment over time.
To give one example: Our public media — a potential safety net for when the market fails to support baseline levels of news and information — still receives a pittance of government funding compared to other democracies. At the federal level, U.S. expenditures amount to only $1.35 per capita and 0.002 percent of our GDP, which is almost literally off the chart.
What might an expanded public media infrastructure look like and how could we support it? Three general subsidies merit consideration. First, we could fund new reporters as part of a journalism jobs program. My colleagues and I proposed this idea back in 2009 and it’s even more timely now. Historical experiments — such as the Federal Writers’ Project that supported cultural workers during the New Deal — are proof of concept. All that’s missing is the political will.
Second, we could subsidize individual news subscriptions through a “democracy voucher” program where every citizen receives a set sum of money to allocate toward the local nonprofit media of their choice. An obvious advantage to this approach is that individuals are directly funding local journalism instead of a government agency.
Finally, we could expand already-existing infrastructures such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Reinvented as “public media,” individual radio and television stations could focus more on local print journalism and various forms of digital news. One major advantage with a public model is its systemic commitment to universal service. By providing essential news and information to all communities, this public service mission prevents the informational red-lining endemic to commercial systems.
Public media also could mesh nicely with the U.S. postal system (USPS), which historically has subsidized news delivery to all Americans. The postal service has more than 30,000 offices across the country, which could serve as multimedia hubs and informational feeders for our entire news media ecosystem.
Beyond building new infrastructure, we also need to salvage what’s left of the newspaper industry. Congress needs to incentivize both newspaper buyers and sellers to ensure that struggling papers transition to local ownership committed to long-term public service and not to hedge funds that seek only short-term profits to the detriment of local communities. A combination of tax incentives and prepackaged bankruptcies could preserve legacy newspapers’ good parts while transitioning them to local nonprofit ownership. We could even establish municipal newspapers in some cities.
One silver lining to the current crisis: Journalism’s structural transformation is an opportunity to not just de-commercialize, but also to democratize it. To imagine how we can empower local communities to govern and make their own media, we again might look to American history. One potential model is a version of the Community Action Program established during the Johnson administration that required federally funded anti-poverty programs to include “maximum feasible participation” by affected communities in all decision-making.
At the very least, we should be experimenting with a variety of noncommercial initiatives. We lost a precious decade awaiting new business models and technological saviors instead of restructuring local journalism for the long term. The good news is that policymakers finally see the journalism crisis as a policy problem and are considering a wide range of proposals. Unfortunately, many of these well-meaning efforts would only prop up failing commercial outlets instead of transitioning them toward a sustainable nonprofit future.
The newspaper industry’s ongoing collapse is a national tragedy. President Biden and Congress must offer bold plans for saving a core infrastructure that facilitates democracy. A future without local journalism is as dire as a society without roads and bridges.
Victor Pickard is a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change (MIC) Center. He has written or edited six books, including “America’s Battle for Media Democracy,” “After Net Neutrality” (with David Berman) and “Democracy without Journalism?” Follow him on Twitter @VWPickard.