A Public Option Might Be Journalism’s Last Best Hope


Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa/AP Images

It’s worth considering what no Democrat has dared advocate for 50-some years: a renewed and robust public investment in media.

That journalism is an industry in crisis is a fact that needs no repeating. Last week, the surprise shutdown announcements from both Pacific Standard (where I used to write until recently) and Governing magazine poured fuel on an already raging fire. The dozens of jobs lost at those two outlets merely add to a 2019 that has seen over 3,200 people lose jobs in media already, including some 2,400 journalists.

Those numbers are relatively mild compared to recent years. In 2018, media companies announced an astonishing 15,474 cuts, some 11,878 coming from news organizations, with both local and national outlets like Vice culling their staff, the worst year to date in what’s been a brutal decade for the industry. Since 2008, newspaper newsroom employees have seen their ranks slashed by 47 percent. Stretching back further to 2000, some 65 percent of newspaper jobs have disappeared, a greater percentage decrease than that of coal mining jobs over the same period. All that has led to a rash of recently coined “news deserts”: 60 percent of U.S. counties have no daily newspaper, with 171 counties boasting no newspaper coverage at all. It’s not just a rural or small-town phenomenon: Major metropolitan areas like San Diego have seen an 83 percent loss in the number of journalists.

And yet, it’s likely that the worst is still to come. Last week also saw the announcement of the merger of GateHouse Media and USA Today owner Gannett, two of the country’s largest newspaper conglomerates. They minted their union with a vow to cut $300 million in annual costs, a sure sign of layoffs to come. “There are several waves of more cuts, newspaper mergers in the offing, that are not going to add new jobs,” Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the media-focused nonprofit Free Press, told me.

The reasons for journalism’s unceremonious hollowing out are manifold and hotly debated. Certainly, massive consolidation within the local newspaper market has catalyzed its demise. Corporate raidership and predatory venture capital have brought a number of publications to their knees. The rise of the big-tech oligopoly—Facebook and Google now hoover up 63 percent of digital ad revenue, and 90 percent of all new digital ad revenue—shoulders major responsibility as well. (As if on cue, Facebook proposed last week that it would be willing to offer up to $3 million a year to news outlets to license their content.)

It’s likely that a robust antitrust enforcement regime, in tandem with a suite of economic policies could create a market more amenable to sustaining journalism. But in the absence of that, and the uncertainty as to whether the market is fundamentally able to provide the necessary journalistic coverage to inform and serve a functioning democracy and civic life, it’s worth considering what no Democrat has dared advocate for 50-some years: a renewed and robust public investment in media.

For decades, Republicans have kept both Democrats and the entire public-media apparatus on the back foot by harping mercilessly on the allegation of “liberal media bias.” Afraid to commit such a capital crime, they’ve stood idly by as public media sustained cut after cut to its funding, while going out of their way to accommodate conservative oratory, with NPR notably refusing to use the word “lie” in its political coverage of Trump for fear of retribution. The money allocated by Congress for the widely loved PBS is so paltry that its stations are forced to proposition their audiences for contributions at regular intervals, in the form of donation drives and tote bag giveaways. When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, he famously pledged to cut funding for PBS in its entirety, a deeply unpopular miscue that weighed on an already sagging campaign.

Yet the fate of (public) media has gotten surprisingly little attention in the 2020 cycle. Despite a number of policies being introduced that might work as a market corrective to rein in some of the monopoly players at the various levels of the media ecosystem (and a proposal from Elizabeth Warren to curtail private equity), the question of public-sector journalism has gone largely ignored.

The only candidate to put forward a policy proposal on the matter so far is entrepreneur Andrew Yang, known best for his plan for a universal basic income that pays out $1,000 a month (while simultaneously curtailing other social services to foot the bill). Yang—who owes his fame to the creation of Venture for America, a temp agency for Ivy League graduates in de-industrialized cities—has put forward two proposals on his website to confront the journalism crisis head on. The first is a $1 billion local journalism fund, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, that would mete out grants to local publications, nonprofits, and libraries to help sustain them. The second, distinctly redolent of Yang’s VFA, is the American Journalism Fellowship, where “reporters from each state nominated by a body of industry professionals and selected by a nonpartisan commission will be given a 4-year grant of $400,000” and stationed at a local news organization. Bernie Sanders, Warren, and others have yet to propose anything else.

There are already some novel public-sector work-arounds that have been introduced at the state level. In 2018, the state of New Jersey created the Civic Information Consortium, a public charity that provides “funding to support quality local journalism, promising media startups and other efforts meant to better inform people.” Working in tandem with five of the state’s universities, the consortium, staffed by a board of appointees from the state government, universities, and community groups, acts as a grant-giving entity, providing funding for media outlets that seek to meet the information needs of low-income communities and communities of color across New Jersey, many of which might qualify as news deserts.

The first-of-its-kind program, conceived of by Free Press Action, presents a way for the public sector to support an industry that has long been thought of as providing a public benefit, but without the state intervening editorially. The passage of the consortium also marked a notable departure from the Chris Christie era, which saw the Republican governor make significant cuts to public-media funding. Public media was “so hollowed out in New Jersey, the state was so underserved, that we got less resistance,” said Aaron, Free Press’s president. The group has also proposed funding mechanisms beyond just grant-making, including a 2 percent ad tax on all targeted ads from big-money platforms with digital ad revenue over $200 million annually. Implemented widely, that tax could bring in almost $2 billion to fund public-media projects, much of it coming from companies that pay little in taxes as it is.

But the Civic Information Consortium has had its fair share of difficulties as well. Governor Phil Murphy initially approved $5 million in funding for the program, but by the time he signed it into law he claimed that money was no longer available. Now, a year later, that figure has dropped to $2 million, to be appropriated out of the general fund. But the procedural battle to actually secure that money remains ongoing.

The greatest opportunity remains at the federal level, where U.S. spending on its generally revered public-media apparatus is dwarfed by peer countries. The U.S. spends $3.32 per capita; for comparison, the U.K. spends $99.96 per person, Germany spends $134.70, and Norway spends $176.80. That public commitment to journalism has allowed those countries, contending with similarly hostile market conditions, to take drastic and effective action against the withering of local journalism. Canada has allocated $600 million in public monies to that end; Britain has moved $10 million from the BBC into a local journalism fund. Australia is considering a national tax on those platform giants that have enervated the advertising stream that once kept publications afloat.

And with the Democratic primary field making a marked return to the Great Society policies of the Johnson years—Medicare for All, Social Security expansion, both extensions of flagship Great Society programs—there exists an opportunity to expand another of Johnson’s most popular policies, the public option in media, brought on 52 years ago with the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Though not without its flaws, the CPB provides perhaps the best example of a successful and compelling solution to a private sector inhospitable to the newsgathering required to inform a functioning democratic society. “There is no commercial solution for saving journalism. A public option is required,” Victor Pickard, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “We need to guarantee that we adequately fund public media so that it is not kept economically weak and vulnerable to political and commercial pressures.”

The return to a public option in media would not only be popular; it would dovetail readily with a spate of small-d democratic reforms like automatic voter registration and campaign finance reform, both of which were hallmarks of the 2018 House bill HB-1. And it could even prove politically expedient in the general election against Trump: “There’s a real opening,” noted Aaron, “for presidential candidates to actually get at this loss of journalism going against Trump, who spent all this time with fake news.”

Saving journalism will require significant policy prescriptions of many sorts. But for the first time in 50 years, there’s an opportunity to champion a public option, to reinvest in and expand public media. As Pickard told me: “Public subsidies are journalism’s last best hope.”

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