Crisis and Hope
We can fix journalism and make survival more realistic. So let's do it.
“Maybe a healthier media could produce a healthier society—it’s hard to imagine how we can confront the global problems that we face if our media system remains so narrow and biased and emaciated.”
Our media system has three crises that really scare and disturb me—our media is (1) narrow and (2) biased and (3) emaciated.
Regarding “narrow”, there aren’t many options—you have to pick from a narrow set of choices. So imagine that right-wingers had a whole range of media outlets that they actually trusted—maybe I’m being unrealistic, but I would expect that this situation would cause right-wingers to be able to hear various criticisms that aren’t hearable when the options are (A) the right-wing Party Line or (B) liberal media.
Regarding “biased”, we have an institutionally unfree media—our media have various institutional constrains that cause the media product to bear a disturbing resemblance to the highly propagandistic media product that you see from state-controlled media abroad.
Regarding “emaciated”, there’s simply a lack of coverage in terms of what’s happening in America and Canada and in terms of what’s happening around the world—this lack of coverage is scary. You often see some great coverage in the New York Times or in the Washington Post—you then think about what lies in the vast darkness given that a small amount of light has revealed so much.
But there’s hope regarding the journalism crisis. Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols have a plan that they call the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI)—you can read about LJI in the following 25 January 2022 document:
Everyone should check out the document—it’s really interesting.
I took the following notes:
most US communities now have “virtually no paid journalists in competing newsrooms covering governance” in a way that’s “sufficient to sustain vibrant democratic institutions”—there’s “a semblance of semi-sufficient journalism” in “a handful of metropolitan areas”, but the “rapidly shrinking” newsrooms that produce that remaining journalism “openly admit they are struggling to survive”
in “many communities there are no paid reporters or newsrooms whatsoever”—“‘news deserts’” virtually didn’t exist throughout American history but now “blanket the country”
the founders “were obsessed with making certain a significant press system would develop in the new United States”—the “new Federal government adopted many measures to encourage and make possible the publication of newspapers all across the country in the first century of the republic”
the “seminal decisions of the Supreme Court regarding freedom of the press” have “frequently referenced” an “understanding” that “the first duty of a democratic state is to guarantee that there be an independent and substantial free press”—for example, look at the “majority opinion for the 1945 Associated Press v. United States case”
the founders “understood that journalism is what today is termed a public good”—journalism “is something society requires but that the market cannot provide in sufficient quantity or quality, like education or fire departments or national defense”
this understanding that journalism is a public good brings us to “the public policy imperative facing the United States regarding journalism in 2022”—we “need the funding to support independent, competitive, professional local news media”
LJI emphasizes local and not national journalism for the “simple” reason that powerful “local news media are the prerequisite for viable national news media”—regarding American history, the “American national news media were at their strongest” when the “driving force was local news media that covered national politics on their own”
regarding funding for journalism, the “money must come from the government”—government “is the only viable option at a point when the market has showed” (1) that it can’t even “begin to sustain existing media” and (2) that it certainly can’t usher in an era of great journalism
“we cannot allow the government to pick and choose who gets the money, or engage in censorship”—any “viable policy to support local journalism must allow the people to make of it what they will and trust them in the process of self-government”
LJI “is designed to deliver” a “stable system that would have numerous competing, independent, locally based news media in every county in the nation, serving all notable constituencies within that county”—under LJI, “policymakers in Washington would provide a lump sum to every county in the nation annually based on the county’s population to pay for nonprofit journalism within that county”
once “every three years, people over 18 will be given three ‘votes’ on how their county’s funds should be distributed to three different LJI candidates based in their county”—one of LJI’s main objectives “is to have multiple well-funded news media in every county, so people should get multiple votes”
in “lightly populated rural areas, several counties could be merged to generate a sufficient population base”—in “the very largest metropolitan areas, where suburban counties are integrated into a broader metropolitan area, LJI applicants could seek funding in more than one county”
diversity and “competition are crucial”—in “the most populous counties, people may get four or five or even six votes to guarantee diversity of voices”
there are six requirements if you want to qualify for LJI funds
first, an enterprise must be “formally identified and understood as nonprofit”
second, an enterprise must be “based in the home county with 75 percent of its salaries going to employees based in the home county”
third, an enterprise must be “completely independent; not a subsidiary of a larger nonprofit group”
fourth, an enterprise must not “receive additional income—from advertising, donations, subscriptions, whatever—totaling more than 5 percent of its LJI grant”
fifth, an enterprise must produce and “publish original material at least five days per week on its website”
sixth, an enterprise must be “fully functioning for six months prior to the election so voters can see what the applicant actually does”
the more votes you get, the higher the percentage of your county’s LJI budget you get—no “single applicant can get more than 20 percent of a county’s annual budget”, though, regardless of how people vote
an “applicant must get at least 1 percent of the vote to qualify, or 0.5 percent of the vote in counties with over 1 million people”—this “will prevent fraud and guarantee each LJI recipient will have enough funds to maintain a full-time staff”
everything “produced by federal funds must be made available immediately to everyone online and for free”—the concept is (A) that “journalistic organizations will be paid in advance”, (B) that “the lion’s share of those funds” will go “to content production”, and (C) that what these journalistic organizations “produce will be instantly put in the public domain and made available to all for free on their website”
in “addition to every LJI recipient having a website where all of its material is posted, each county will have a ‘newsstand’ website featuring the latest stories of all its LJI recipients, a daily frontpage for all the county’s LJI news media if you will”—this “will allow people to easily get the lay of the land in their county, or in any other county in which they are interested”
there “will be no content supervision by the government, no monitoring content to ascertain that it is ‘good journalism,’ or even journalism at all”—the “stipulations above will go a long way toward eliminating fraud, and they will be easily enforced”
the “best check on abuses will be popular voting to determine the recipients”—people might “elect to have disingenuous local news media”, but democracy contains the risk that people will make negative choices
the “process will be overseen by the U.S. Postal Service, with elections taking place online and with print ballots available at or through the Postal Service”—the aforementioned “‘newsstand’ webpage will make it easy for voters to compare and contrast the alternatives”
by “2021, total daily newspaper income (including digital) was less than $20 billion, and every year that number continues to plummet”
“the total revenues of U.S. daily newspapers constituted 1 percent of GDP as recently as 1960”—“that would amount to $232 billion in 2021”
“the total revenues accounted for by daily newspapers was just under 0.6 percent of GDP” in 2000—at “that rate, the local journalism income for 2021 would be $133 billion”
from 1840 to 1844, the “U.S. federal subsidy for newspapers” was “0.21 percent of GDP”—a “subsidy like that would amount to around $46 billion based on the projected 2021 GDP”
regarding the 0.21% figure that you saw in America in the 1800s, “LJI would not even require an annual budget in this ballpark”—McChesney and Nichols think that “the best way to assure that there are sufficient resources for newsrooms across the country would be to set the annual budget at 0.15 percent of the previous year’s GDP”
keeping “the budget to this formula would account for economic and population growth, as well as inflation in coming years, and provide stability for planning”—the 0.15% figure would mean that the 2022 budget “would be just over $34 billion for local news production”
the “LJI funds would be distributed at the same rate for every person, so a county’s LJI budget would be determined exclusively by its population”—an “annual budget of $34 billion divided by the US population of 333 million people” equals “just over $100 per capita”
“a county of 250,000 people would get $25 million to produce and sustain local journalism”—a “county of 1 million people would get $100 million”
the “nonprofit Baltimore Banner could compete for LJI funds amounting to around $140 million for Baltimore City and Baltimore County”—Baltimore “could have, say, ten different LJI recipients, with budgets averaging $14 million”
10 LJI recipients with an average budget of $14 million means “around 250 paid editorial staffers on average for each recipient”—that “would be a gamechanger for Baltimore, and for America”
if “people decide not to vote, the amount of the budget would not be affected”—“it only means that fewer people would determine where the money goes”
the journalism crisis means the “numbing ignorance, depoliticization, cynicism, depression and desperation of so many people”—this “nation has been praying for the market and technologies to magically solve the collapse of journalism for going on two decades and the prayers have not been answered”
the “evidence is in”—the “time to act is now”
So this is an inspiring idea from McChesney and Nichols—the solution to the journalism crisis is a system of public funding. Some aspects of how the system should work are clear—other aspects will have to be worked out through discussion and experimentation.
Maybe a healthier media could produce a healthier society—it’s hard to imagine how we can confront the global problems that we face if our media system remains so narrow and biased and emaciated.