The number of newspaper employees in U.S. newsrooms dropped by about half between 2008 and 2019, according to a report from Pew Research Center. Then the pandemic accelerated the damage.
In response, the number of unions forming across newsrooms is exploding, alongside a transformation in the industry’s understanding of labor. But individual organizing efforts have limitations when it comes to addressing what is a massive, structural problem. It’s increasingly clear that the journalism industry as it is currently constituted cannot survive, let alone thrive, under the conditions of 21st-century capitalism. Some journalists, scholars, and activists argue that it is therefore time to consider a more comprehensive, systemic approach to public funding for journalism.
Osita Nwanevu, contributing editor at The New Republic, wrote a column this spring arguing that local journalism is infrastructure. Victor Pickard, professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Democracy Without Journalism?, a book on what a publicly owned, democratically governed media system might look like. Mike Rispoli of Free Press helped organize a structure for state funding to support local journalism in New Jersey. I spoke with these experts about why public funding matters, what’s happening legislatively, and what kinds of changes are possible given the current political climate.
Perhaps most importantly, we talked about how the act of imagining a new system, in and of itself, might be one of the most essential tasks ahead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kate Harloe: Why does public funding for journalism in the United States matter?
Osita Nwanevu: I’m here in my very limited capacity as a working journalist; I’m not a historian or media scholar or a media economist. But I think that everybody who’s working in journalism, no matter the level or medium, recognizes that the industry is in a really deep hole—one that was made even deeper by the pandemic over the last year.
If we want to really reclaim or revive the kind of journalistic climate that existed, let’s say fifty years ago—where you have robust local journalism, a bunch of newspapers reporting on things that are going on in state capitals and in people’s communities—you want journalism that isn’t being directed by the algorithms of a couple of major corporations. If you want a healthy journalistic ecosystem, these individual piecemeal solutions we’ve seen—revamping subscriptions, or trying nonprofit status—aren’t going to cut it.
The piece that I wrote earlier this year—I don’t want to say it was trolling, but it did start from these conversations about what infrastructure actually means. The Biden administration was starting to say that certain things could be broadly conceived of as infrastructure: not just roads and bridges, but things that are essential to a well-functioning society. And I just thought, “Why wouldn’t journalism be part of that?”
Society runs on having accurate information. Obviously, over the course of the pandemic people have depended on getting up-to-date information. If we’re going to spend a lot of money on public investments, I don’t see why journalism couldn’t also be part of that picture. The proposed package was between 3 and 4 trillion. A fraction of that, even a fraction of a fraction of that, I wrote, would be more money than has been given to public media in the history of this country.
That didn’t end up happening; I don’t think we’re going to fund journalism as part of the infrastructure package. [Laughs.] But I do think, as Kate was saying at the beginning of our talk, the industry is at this moment where people understand the depth of the hole we’re in. People are taking action not just to preserve the integrity of industry, but to create a sense of stability. I hope that that collective consciousness also produces political action and a real push from journalists to think more seriously about public funding as a part of the solution here
Mike Rispoli: I joined Free Press in 2015 after working as a journalist and in human rights. I helped to start the News Voices project in New Jersey. It wasn’t about helping newsrooms; it was about figuring out solutions to the local news crisis by getting more people to participate in reshaping how they get their news and information.
What I learned was that the entire local news infrastructure needed to change. The thing that we heard across the board was this call for public funding, because the financial incentives for newsrooms were in direct opposition to quality coverage of that community. That doesn’t mean that you don’t get good investigative pieces every once in a while. But those incentives are actually opposed.
There’s this perception that public funding of news and information is unpopular; it’s only unpopular with the people who have bought into the old models. Journalists and newsrooms do not like the idea of public funding. The problem, as I see it, is that both in state capitals and in Washington, D.C., the interests of old media… I’m not going to name names, but the lobbyists who protect broadcast media and promote consolidated ownership practices are actively preventing policies [that oppose their own] from being passed.
And so I think what’s needed is this conversation to move from “how can newsrooms better cover communities,” to “how can communities actually build power to pass policies that create a media system that actually benefits them and looks like them.” What excites me about this work is the possibility of doing what we did in New Jersey, but in other places around the country.
Victor Pickard: I’m loving everything that I’m hearing. I’m about to make myself sound very old here, but I started grappling with these questions about 20 years ago, when I was involved with the Indymedia movement in the late 1990s. What compelled me was a belief that the commercial model driving so much of our media was fundamentally flawed.
So much of what we’re seeing today—from the over-reliance on advertising revenue to news deserts to the fact that our commercial media system has failed to ever serve so many communities—is just the logical culmination of that model.
It’s becoming so glaringly obvious that the market can’t support the level of journalism that a democratic society needs. But I agree with what Osita was saying earlier that at the moment there are these openings that make me weirdly optimistic about what we can achieve.
Harloe: Mike said that financial incentives run counter to producing good journalism; I agree. What would ideal public funding models look like? Victor, at the end of your book on public funding, you propose a media system that relies on a mixed funding model. But when I think about mixed funding, I wonder… should journalism just be taken out of the market entirely?
Pickard: I do want to add some nuance to the idea behind the mixed funding model. In part, I’m trying not to scare everyone off by saying that we need to take journalism entirely out of the market. I think we largely do.
There can still be commercial outlets that are capable of producing fantastic journalism at times, as Mike mentioned earlier. It’s just that our balance is so out of whack right now. I’d like to see the balance reversed, where the commercial sector is much smaller, and the public sector is much larger. And the United States, unlike every other democratic country on the planet, has a very small public media sector.
Harloe: It took me a while to realize just how small funding is for public media in the United States relative to other countries in the world. It’s really striking.
Rispoli: I agree with Victor that the balance is out of whack. In the United States, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in the 1960s to direct public funding toward news and education to fill the gaps left by the market. Those gaps are so much bigger now.
Where the model in New Jersey proves interesting is in the idea of creating a grantmaking body that can join public funding and private philanthropy to invest in creating a new local news infrastructure, and working together to gear that towards civic information. We know that the loss of local news has had a significant impact on civic participation. Fewer people vote, fewer people volunteer, fewer people run for public office in communities where local news is deficient or has disappeared altogether.
Models like the National Endowment of the Arts take public funding and then make grants to worthy projects. We’re just starting to see that get off the ground in New Jersey: The Civic Information Consortium just gave out its first round of grants for half a million dollars to 14 different projects around the state; some of the grantees have a journalism background, and others are not from a journalism background but are deeply connected to their community.
But whatever sort of public funding model we create, it needs to support community information needs, not only existing public media infrastructures. There’s an opportunity for us to build new types of local media.
Pickard: There are really just two general approaches. One is private philanthropy and nonprofit models. There’s a lot of excitement around philanthropic initiatives, and there are a lot of great nonprofit experiments. But there will never be enough resources there to provide a baseline level of news and information for all communities, especially communities of color, who have never been well served. That’s why a public funding system is imperative. I agree with Mike; It’s not enough just to de-commercialize our media and to fund existing public infrastructures. We have to democratize them. We have to entirely reinvent and reimagine them so that they serve as a democratic force in society.
These institutions don’t exist right now. How can we guarantee that new newsrooms will look like the communities that they serve, and will be owned and controlled by those local communities? That’s where we have to get into some utopian thinking, but I think that’s the kind of conversation that we need to be having.
Harloe: Right, and a lot of these ideas are not that radical. There is precedent for a serious public funding structure for media, and there are examples of it working successfully, even in the United States. You’ve written about the postal service as an example.
Pickard: In the U.S., thinking on this has been so constrained for so long around market imperatives. It’s like we can’t think beyond market mechanisms.
Not to romanticize the founding framers, but one thing that they did understand was that they should not set up communication infrastructures that are directly pegged to the market. They understood that these infrastructures must be subsidized, the first being the postal system. It was highly socialistic. It was heavily subsidized, and it was primarily a newspaper delivery infrastructure.
So if we take that into consideration, we can try to build on these already existing public infrastructures like our postal system. Public libraries are another example. But we also have to make it clear that we’re talking about reinventing and creating new institutions.
Nwanevu: The utopian stuff is very important because I think the real difficult questions here are structural questions about how journalism ought to function to begin with.
To me, the question of whether or not we need public financing isn’t a difficult question. We do. The question of how we come up with the money isn’t a difficult question. There are all kinds of ways we could come up with the money. In recent years, people have looked into charging money for online advertising, you could do license fees, there are all kinds of ways to fund public journalism.
The difficult questions involve what to do with the money; that’s where values come in. That’s where community involvement in the decisionmaking process becomes important.
When I was writing this piece, I looked into Canada’s local journalism project. They’ve committed $50 million over the next five years or so to fund local journalism projects aimed at serving underserved communities. And it seems like a lot of that money has gone to existing publications or big newspapers, newspapers that are now owned by hedge funds. Small outlets have had some trouble accessing those grants.
As Victor says, if you’re not talking about democratizing the industry and you’re not talking about who’s been given the opportunity and the power to sustain these institutions, you’re left preserving a lot of inequities that have defined the industry.
So we should also be thinking about using those spigots as opportunities for change. Like, maybe a newspaper gets money if it transitions to a cooperative model, or is run in a way that allows underserved people in the community to make decisions about what’s editorially worth covering. Because that dollar question, to me, is the discussion kind of on training wheels. The more difficult questions are about how journalism should function in a healthy democratic society.
Pickard: Unfortunately, Osita’s right about the Canadian project. That’s one of the main critiques—that all that money or a disproportionate amount of that money is going to the incumbents and traditional publishers instead of funding new outlets.
Rispoli: On the legislative front these short term fixes, which are like band-aid policies, are getting a lot of attention.
There are three buckets of policies to advance. One is actually those immediate, short-term fixes. Because the reality is that there are journalists losing jobs, and we need to find ways to preserve journalists in communities. You can try to do that in a way that doesn’t benefit the people who got us into this mess.
And then you have the second bucket of transitional policies. How do we get newsrooms to go from being for-profit to nonprofit? How do we incentivize community or worker cooperative ownership? There are folks who are looking at land trusts as a model. How can an owner of a commercial property turn it into a trust that’s owned by the community?
And then the last bucket is what we’ve just talked about: the utopian vision. The challenge is that it’s really hard to get lawmakers to look beyond the immediate problem.
Essentially, we need policy ideas for the short, medium, and long term.
Harloe: There’s a related issue here, which Victor writes about in his book; debates around media policy in the United States have been completely shaped by libertarian assumptions. And this was not just the work of libertarians or conservatives, it has been enabled repeatedly by democratic lawmakers and liberals in power generally.
One of his examples stood out to me—a 2011 FCC report, which should have been a major opportunity to push for greater public funding in the United States. Victor shows how this report ruled out any meaningful policy intervention, and failed to recommend much besides deregulation, out of fear of backlash from conservatives.
It’s not necessary, or even logical—based on legal and political history and precedent—that the debate around media policy be defined by libertarian assumptions. But we need people in power who are willing to push back against those assumptions and actively articulate an alternative vision, instead of only playing defense by reacting to the conservative vision, or enabling it out of fear. This also relates to the question of feasibility… there’s the ideal media system, and then there’s what’s possible to change in the current political climate.
Pickard: Some of what gives me hope, or at least gives us a potential leverage point is that, even among conservatives who say they hate the media, when you talk about their local newspaper or broadcaster, they often have warm, fuzzy feelings. There are still relatively higher levels of trust towards local journalism. So I do think there are ways, just rhetorically and discursively, to try to connect with people about these issues.
And also—Osita hinted at this earlier—if nothing else, the pandemic really drove home how valuable local journalism is. I think there is some newfound respect and appreciation for journalism writ large, but especially local journalism.
And finally, we have already been talking about this, but the dominant paradigm of corporate libertarianism and market fundamentalism is very much in flux right now. It’s embattled as the dominant discourse. It could go in many different directions. It could go to fascism. It’s not guaranteed that we’re going to come out of this with a more progressive model. But I think it does create an opportunity for us to try to reclaim and reimagine our public goods.
Nwanevu: Victor is absolutely right, we’re at this moment where certain premises about the extent to which markets make sense and work all the time are now collapsing. And this has created an opportunity space where you can make the case for public journalism in a more ambitious way than you might have been able to a couple of years ago. The problem is that that collapse in the libertarian market understanding is accompanied by a collapse in the capacity of federal policymakers to do things, particularly Democratic policymakers, who would obviously be the most likely to support funding journalism.
So that brings us to a really tough place. I don’t know that we can reasonably expect federal action to create a large pool of money for public journalism in the near future. I do think that a lot of the solutions that we need to be thinking through now are going to be solutions at the state and local level, but that’s not cause for despair. I mean what happened in New Jersey is a great model, and should be a great inspiration to everybody to imagine what’s possible, even though we’re not yet talking about a grand transformation from the top down of public media.
So those are the kinds of solutions that are possible in the near term, I think, which is not to say that utopian vision isn’t a worthy one or that it’s not possible in the long term. I think it is.
Ultimately, those long-term ambitions are going to be built from the ground up. You demonstrate that the models of public funding that work at the local level are improving people’s lives in a concrete way. Then eventually, if we move to a less sclerotic political system, in the next 15, 20 years, fingers crossed…[laughter among everyone]… then you have the grounds to say, “Okay, look like this is all that we’ve done over the past decade to build up political journalism with the resources we have. Now we have an opportunity at the federal level to do something bigger and to create the kinds of big national public media infrastructure that we always should have had.”
Rispoli: I think the will is there. Lawmakers know that fewer journalists are showing up to their press conferences. They’re seeing the impact of that.
In New Jersey we had politicians hear from their constituents about the impact of this on the community. One way that we kind of move out of this debate about whether or not public funding is good or bad is like, we should actually talk to people about what they want. And if it’s something that they want, they’re going to be willing to organize and call their representative, or show up to a lobby day, or testify at committees like we saw in New Jersey. Thousands of people supported the campaign and participated in many different ways. That’s why we were able to make it happen.
We get into this conversation about whether or not public funding for local news should exist, but it already does. It already does through the forms of local governments advertising in papers, often called legal notices or legal ads. We see discounted rates for newspaper delivery. We’ve obviously seen public funding for NPR and PBS. But when lawmakers hear from the public, I think they’ll be more responsive to it.
Then of course, lawmakers are increasingly concerned about misinformation and disinformation, which proliferates in news deserts. You can logically make the argument to lawmakers that if you want to actually combat this, we need to invest in growing a healthier news and information system. Between that and the pandemic, we are in a moment where lawmakers are actually more receptive to these arguments than they were previously, and there’s more of a public desire. There is more opportunity at the state and local level than there is at the federal level. But I’m hopeful that we’re going to see some significant changes sooner or later. So I’m going to look forward to proving Osita wrong that it’s going to take a decade to get this stuff done.