Last fall, Popula convened Osita Nwanevu of The New Republic, Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania, and Mike Rispoli of Free Press to talk about the breakdown of the media system in the United States, and public funding as a potential remedy.
The discussion just scratched the surface; larger and still more urgent issues loom beyond the question of increased public funding. How can journalism survive under 21st century capitalism? How might media work at scale, outside of the market? How does capitalism itself harm journalism, and how can those harms be prevented?
Mediaquake, our interview series tackling these questions, begins today, with a follow-up interview with Victor Pickard, Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Democracy Without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Harloe: Why do you feel that the market has failed journalism?
Pickard: In the U.S., we’ve lost around 60 percent of newspaper jobs since the 1990s, newspapers are closing, and news deserts are expanding.
Despite all this evidence, much of the discourse trying to make sense of the disaster treats it as a recent development. The lazy version of the argument is that “the internet broke journalism.” While there’s some truth to that, journalism’s original sin is the ascendancy of commercialization, which began in the late 1800s.
Advertising was there from the beginning—some of the earliest ads in newspapers were advertisements for slaves—but it was the late 1800s when the press radically commercialized, and news publishers began to see their audiences primarily as consumers, not members of a democratic polity, not citizens.
Probably the best history of this profound structural transformation, from an overtly partisan and political press to a primarily commercial press system, was written by the journalism historian Gerald Baldasty. His book, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, documents how publishers came to see their audiences primarily as “commercialized readers,” bait for advertiser revenues.
Harloe: What was the beginning of that shift?
Pickard: Publishers came to realize how much money they could make with newspapers. Until the late 1800s, newspapers typically relied on a mix of revenue streams, including federal, party, and state-level subsidies, reader support, and some advertising. Generally speaking—especially outside of metropolitan areas, which made up a relatively small portion of U.S. journalism at that time—newspapers were more focused on advancing political positions than emphasizing business interests.
Hard numbers are scarce prior to 1880, but one historical analysis estimates that advertising revenue was lower than ten percent for the newspaper industry before the early 1860s, jumping to over 40% by the end of that decade. On average, U.S. press advertising revenue grew from 44% to a peak of more than 80% in the 1990s and early 2000s, before slipping back under 50% by 2020.
This became the core relationship, between news media owners, investors, and advertisers. Journalism began to be produced almost like a byproduct of the monetary transaction, right?
In this way, advertising has long subsidized journalism. And because our press system was pegged to the advertising revenue model for so long, that was presumed to be the natural order of things. But the ad-dependent, profit-driven press system has always obfuscated the public-good nature of journalism—especially the positive externalities that the market typically doesn’t account for and doesn’t support.
A healthy democracy informs members of society, and create solidarities so that people can be self-governing, but advertisers were never explicitly committed to the ideal of sustaining democracy (nor were many publishers, for that matter). So the advertising-dependent model excluded or misrepresented large segments of society, according to race and class—but it worked well enough, so many people took for granted that the market would always provide for our information needs. This was a foolish assumption that today has blown up in our faces.
As readers and advertisers migrated to the web in the early 2000s, the traditional business model collapsed. Today, the lion’s share of digital advertising revenue is going to the big bad duopoly of Facebook and Google. They’re not the main causes of this crisis: they’re exacerbating it, certainly, but the root of all this is capitalism.
It’s never sufficient to say, “It is capitalism,” and drop the mic. But we too rarely indict capitalism. People say, “That’s too reductive,” and then we don’t talk about it at all.
Harloe: In most spaces that are interested in changing journalism, it often seems we can’t talk about the elephant in the room. The closest we get is discussing public funding. I do want to dig in a little bit, without dropping the mic: In your work, how do you define “capitalism?”
Pickard: The best way for me to get at it is to define what I mean by a commercial media system. My book examines what commercial logic does to our news media and communication infrastructures.
The primary function of our commercial media system is the accumulation of capital for owners, and that comes at the expense of other imperatives. For example, to the extent that media is meant to serve the needs of a democracy, that has only happened as a result of pushback from journalists, communities, policy-makers, or the public.
The partnership between journalism’s role as a free public service and its role as a profit-driven enterprise was fraught from the beginning; ideally it would’ve never happened in the first place. This combination, if not a match made in hell, is deeply problematic.
Calling this system by its name—capitalism—really gets at what Mark Fisher referred to as “capitalist realism”: This idea that capitalism pervades reality itself, both ontologically and epistemologically, determining the master categories of how we see the world, so that we can’t imagine an alternative.
Even now, as we see the entire edifice collapsing, it’s still almost impossible for us to imagine alternatives to capitalism. Or to think of creating a true public alternative to the failing commercial model for journalism. We’re slowly getting to the point where we can think of modest subsidies or nonprofit news outlets.
Harloe: How do you distinguish between commercialism and capitalism?
Pickard: I’ve written before that when I say “commercial,” I mean “capitalist.” So I also mean, “capitalist media system,” but that sounds odd. And the fact that it does sound odd to us speaks volumes, right?
Pickard: I think that’s very telling. Sometimes I use certain words strategically because I’m trying to gain entry into policy debates. If I were to come into the room and start talking about “the capitalist media system,” people would be like, get this guy out of here. But if I talk about problems with an overly commercialized media system, or the commercial media system, we have a better starting vocabulary for that. We don’t call non-commercial media “non-capitalist.” We don’t call our public media system a non-capitalist media system.
Harloe: What would it mean, to consider a public media system as explicitly anti-capitalist?
Pickard: Erik Olin Wright talks about how to be an anti-capitalist today. He’s not afraid to go there, and he gives us useful language and a schematic. In my book, I base the argument about public media infrastructures on his ideas of anti-capitalism.
Public media spaces and infrastructures—whether we’re talking about the postal system, or public libraries, or public broadcasting stations, to varying degrees—these are anti-capitalist spaces.
You’re underscoring the discursive constraints, to use the fancy academic term, of the ways in which we can even think and talk about these problems. Part of our agenda needs to be expanding our vocabularies and our imagination for how we think and talk about these things.
Harloe: Can journalism ever function well within a capitalist system?
Pickard: We should see it in terms of a spectrum. A commercial system can at times produce high-quality news and information for particular groups, around particular subjects. But there are going to be severe structural limitations. It’s never going to be enough to serve the needs of a democratic society.
The commercial system has attempted to build up various safeguards, in response to the structural weaknesses, such as ethical or professional codes. But those are vulnerable. For example, the objectivity norm is often treated as a cultural transition in the history of professional journalism. But in large part, that developed as a response to economic concerns, growing public criticism, and concerns about potential regulation. It was a way for commercial news organizations to present a veneer of responsibility, and yet still make tons of money for a small number of people.
It’s never been a sufficient arrangement, and it’s now completely falling apart because of increasing commercial pressures and the desperate attempt to chase ever-diminishing revenues. So, we have to be very clear that there is no commercial future. There never was, but certainly not now, for the level of news and information that a democratic society needs.
Harloe: You’ve mentioned, now and in your book, taking journalism out of the market completely. This goes far beyond the idea of simply increasing public funding. What is your vision for how a media system could work outside of the market completely?
Pickard: A commercial system treats news and information as commodities, not public goods, not public services; a social democratic or democratic socialist approach to this is to see journalism producing public goods that are not left to the mercy of the market; that are protected from the market, and taken out of the market.
I’m admittedly utopian about these things. I don’t think any of it’s going to happen tomorrow, but I think it’s important to have that vision in place.
Some of this needs to be decided by local communities themselves. One goal would be to have a public media center in every community. There are over 30,000 post offices scattered across the country. The public media center, formerly just the post office, could be a place not only for mailing packages, but a place for local journalists to set up shop, and also a place to access municipal broadband services.
Think of our public school system. It’s always being encroached upon by various commercial interests, but it’s still primarily a non-capitalist system, even if it’s being fought over all the time. Likewise, I think it would be great if we had a public media system, federally guaranteed but locally owned and controlled.
Now, there are obvious problems with federalism. There are all kinds of points where it’s vulnerable to capture, so we really have to build in safeguards against that. But I do think it’s possible.
Harloe: This idea of safeguards comes up all the time when you talk about public funding for journalism. The line of questioning around safeguards makes me a little crazy because it generally assumes that the idea of the people owning the media is somehow worse—or less structurally sound—than the situation we have now.
Public funding is ultimately about giving communities the freedom to own the media that’s produced about them and their interests.
Pickard: I think it’s an idea that we could get used to, right?
There are always going to be knee-jerk ideological reactions. The idea that communities and journalists themselves should own and control media institutions is not something that we’re used to. Ideally, media centers would be news media cooperatives.
You asked me to think ahead towards the utopian vision, but in the more immediate term, I think there should be a two-pronged approach: try to salvage what’s left, and incentivize media organizations to transition into low-profit or nonprofit outlets. That’s not as far along on this spectrum we’re envisioning, but it’s a meaningful step.
Right now we are in this amazing moment of nonprofit experiments, like City Bureau in Chicago or Outlier Media in Detroit. Strikingly, these experiments are more accountable to local communities, and, especially, to communities of color. They serve critical information needs, often engaging local residents in the work of making their own media and telling their own stories. These new journalism models show us what news outlets are capable of doing when they privilege the values of public service and participatory democracy, in sharp contrast to putting commercial values first. How can we replicate those successes?
Harloe: Your book also gets into alternative sources of funding journalism—foundations pooling their resources, international spectrum sales, consumer taxes, tax vouchers, and taxing platform monopolies.
Pickard: Everyone likes taxing platform monopolies. But that’s plan B. Plan A is we take it straight out of the Treasury. We should at least fight for that first.
We need a massive independent fund to allocate to journalism, especially to news deserts. But that money needs to be ethically laundered, by which I mean there can’t be strings attached to any of it.The fund has to be autonomous, and separate from the government, and decisions should be made by local communities.
Right now, even funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is tied to the appropriations process. It has to be regularly re-upped, and so the funding is in constant danger. We can’t have that; funding has to be guaranteed. That’s one of the reasons why our public broadcasting system has been kept so economically and politically meek—there is always this threat to its funding.
It’s not enough to decommercialize media or to take media out of the market; we also must radically democratize it.
Harloe: What books and writers can you recommend on these topics? Specifically people who have shaped your thinking on the relationship between media and capitalism?
Pickard: Robert McChesney was my advisor and I was deeply influenced by him. I would also recommend C. Edwin Baker’s work, Media, Markets, and Democracy. I believe that is his most well-known. I’ve mentioned Erik Olin Wright.
There’s a new wave of writers focusing on the role of platforms; they don’t look as closely at news media or journalism. I’m thinking here of Ben Tarnoff, who has a new book out called Internet for the People. There’s another called Platform Socialism by James Muldoon. I would also recommend the work of another mentor, Oscar Gandy. I mentioned Gerald Baldasty. I’m a big fan of Nancy Fraser’s work in general. If I could say one more thing…
Harloe: Of course!
Pickard: A while back, you began to ask: how do we build the political will around this? How do we make this happen? And I don’t have the answers. But I do think that it is important to have these ideas in the discourse. The right has been so much better at thinking in terms of a 50 year plan: slowly taking over discourses and institutions. Crazy ideas that we used to think were so fringe have over time flowed into the mainstream.
The left needs that kind of long-term focus. But also, having the ideas in place isn’t enough. We need to build power from below. These ideas need to be bound up in larger multiracial class-based social movements. We’ve been seeing glimmers of hope—I think the potential is there—but it’s going to have to be part of a larger social revolution to make a lot of these things happen.
Harloe: I agree. Some time ago I started thinking about how the media system needs to be included in efforts like the Green New Deal, for example. But people often don’t think about the media system in those terms. I worry about it getting left behind.
The media is also in some ways a particularly difficult sector, or public good, to advocate around. Journalism is supposed to hold our political leaders accountable. So when you have a political leader who’s elected—even one who is left-leaning—critiquing the media, there are many places that critique might be coming from. It’s necessary that politicians and the media aren’t in bed together, so it becomes difficult for electeds to make sound arguments in public for change in the media. As you’ve said, the critique primarily needs to come from grassroots activism and from journalists. But for so many reasons, journalists don’t consider themselves political actors, even though they absolutely are.
Pickard: You’re spot on about that. Journalists have often been the last people to advocate for change. There are lefty journalists who, when it comes to policy interventions that try to help salvage and sustain journalism, become raging libertarians. But I’m cautiously optimistic that’s beginning to change.