The media landscape in the United States is increasingly grim. In recent weeks, thirty-three thousand news workers have lost their jobs or had their hours and pay slashed. Newspaper chains are going bankrupt as vulture capitalists pick over the remains. With advertising revenues decimated, local news outlets are hollowing out, silencing an important source of information when it’s needed most.
But it’s important to understand that commercial journalism, always prone to crisis, was collapsing long before COVID-19. The newspaper industry had already shed over 50 percent of its employees since the early 2000s. The virus, more an accelerant than a cause, simply kicked over a teetering edifice.
The underlying economics are simple, if often obscured. Advertising long provided what was essentially a subsidy for local journalism, a public good that typically can’t pay for itself. It was a lucrative arrangement for many publishers until news moved online, where digital ads pay only fractions of print advertising revenues, thus killing newspapers’ business model. Commercial alternatives like online paywalls have failed to rescue the vast majority of news outlets.
These conditions had devastated local journalism long before the pandemic, but newspapers — still Americans’ major source of original local reporting — are now facing existential doom. While alternative weeklies have been hit hardest, all local journalism is threatened, with many outlets barely hanging on. Losing what little advertising remained from local businesses and events could deliver a final deathblow to surviving papers. To give one stark example: Cleveland’s the Plain Dealer had 340 journalists twenty years ago. Now it’s down to four.
Some analysts blame Google and Facebook for devouring most digital advertising revenue. But while these firms should be brought to heel for a host of social harms, identifying monopoly power as the primary source of the journalism crisis misdiagnoses the problem. There’s a deeper pathology at work: capitalism and journalism have always been at odds. It’s time to sever their unholy union.
Overreliance on profit-driven news media has always been a losing proposition for democratic societies. Commercial imperatives incentivized news organizations to underserve and misrepresent entire segments of society. The coronavirus is intensifying this endemic market failure. With newspaper closures, bankruptcies, mergers, and extreme downsizing increasingly common, hundreds of communities across the country lack access to any local news.
To lose the local newspaper is to lose an institution that’s vitally important to the health, culture, and democratic promise of our towns and cities. They are a social necessity, and we must rescue them from the ravages of the market. There’s already movement in this direction, as calls for a journalism stimulus proliferate. Many of these ideas — subsidizing journalists’ salaries, expanding public broadcasting’s budget, saving outlets from bankruptcy — have been around for years, but they’ve taken on a new resonance as journalism’s plight becomes more urgent.
In the short term, the government should intervene to salvage what local public service journalism remains in the commercial sector. As lawmakers shower industry after industry — from cruise ships to hotel chains — with bailouts, we can afford to allocate emergency funds to news workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Instead of propping up failed commercial models, this public financing should be conditional on newspapers transitioning into nonprofit status.
But journalism needs more than just stimulus; it needs a major structural overhaul. And it requires permanent and public support.
Massive subsidies for local media could come in many forms. A new Works Progress Administration (WPA)–style program focused on jobs and infrastructure could return legions of unemployed journalists back to their beats and fund the build-out of necessary infrastructure such as municipal broadband networks and public media outlets.
Devoting an average of $100 per US citizen to local media infrastructure would add up to more than $30 billion annually (similar to the public media budgets of many Western and Northern European countries and proportionate to US postal subsidies for newspapers in the 1800s). This modest outlay — tiny compared to recent tax cuts for billionaires and corporations — could help maintain a baseline for reliable news and information.
For starters, that would mean expanding and repurposing US public broadcasting, which receives just $445 million a year from the federal government (or approximately $1.34/person). By comparison, the US government shells out $700 million annually for international broadcasting services like Voice of America and devotes more than $600 million to the Pentagon’s public relations budget alone.
Existing public institutions, including libraries, universities, and public broadcasting stations, could also be harnessed to provide institutional support for local journalism. Instead of defunding or privatizing the postal system, which historically has played a vital role in disseminating the news, we could expand it by converting tens of thousands of post offices into community media-making spaces.
Subsidizing public media should be uncontroversial, as it is in many countries. To maintain universal information services with diverse views and voices, democratic governments around the world invest in their news media without creating propaganda machines or sliding into authoritarianism.
In the past, even the United States has supported media production. During the Great Depression, the government put artists and writers back to work through its WPA programs. And every major communication system — from the postal system to broadcasting to the internet — flourished thanks to government resources. Media subsidies are as American as apple pie.
Of course, political independence is a legitimate concern. But government support doesn’t amount to government control. Oversight must be decentralized and bottom-up, with local communities and journalists setting the tone and content of coverage. These new newsrooms — publicly owned, democratically governed, and fully funded — should look like the neighborhoods they serve, and their focus should be determined by the needs of residents.
Letting the market drive journalism into the ground is a political choice. If we harbor any hope for democracy, our communities’ health, or tens of thousands of jobs, we can’t let local journalism wither.
If nothing else, this crisis illustrates what happens when we leave public services — from health care to education — dependent on the mercy of the market. We must find a new way to support the media we need. The news is a public good, and public goods require public investments. A noncommercial model — owned by and in service to the people — is journalism’s last, best hope.