Saving America's democracy-sustaining journalism

by Victor Pickard and Joe Torres, Seattle Times

NEWSPAPERS are in trouble. Big media companies are in bankruptcy, century-old newsrooms have shut their doors, and thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. The day seems imminent when a major American city will wake up without a broadsheet on anyone's doorstep.

The public's changing media habits have eroded the newspaper industry's monopoly on the local ad market. Today, more people get their news online than from newspapers. Fewer people are willing to pay for classified ads and are opting instead to place ads online. This is bad news for an industry that earns 90 percent of its revenue from print ads.

Despite the many shortcomings of newspapers, our democracy requires a free and vibrant press. There's growing debate in Washington, D.C., about how to address the journalism crisis. The big media companies are pressuring Congress to prop up their failed business models by allowing more media consolidation and relaxing antitrust laws so they can collude on new "pay wall" and pricing schemes.

But these shortsighted measures aren't the answer. We must recognize that the current crisis isn't just about the future of newspapers; it's about the survival of democracy-sustaining journalism. We now have a unique and fleeting opportunity to overhaul our media system and advocate for policies that would serve the informational needs of diverse communities.

For too long, newspapers and other mainstream-media outlets have abandoned their commitment to public service in the pursuit of short-term gains. Even today, many newspapers remain profitable but their corporate owners are burdened by huge debt loads incurred during earlier consolidation sprees.

We need new models whose sole criterion for success is not profit maximization. News isn't just another commodity. Journalism is an essential public service and critical infrastructure. Like many public goods, journalism has never been fully supported by the market; it always has been subsidized. But the advertising-subsidy system no longer works.

During this transitional moment, there's much that needs to happen to rescue failing news operations while supporting the creation of new ones. First, we must rescue good assets from bad owners. Journalism is too precious to leave its future in the hands of absentee corporate owners.

In this spirit, Free Press recently released a report endorsing five policy proposals that would help sustain newsrooms. We support new ownership structures such as nonprofit 501(c)3 and low-profit limited liability companies (L3Cs) that would remove market pressures from news operations and mandate public service. We also call for new tax incentives and bankruptcy laws to encourage local and diverse ownership.

In the past, many media owners have been hostile toward reform efforts. We hope that media owners unwilling to invest in quality journalism will take advantage of new policies allowing them to sell their properties to new local and diverse owners instead of hollowing out their newsrooms for short-term gains.

Congress should immediately pursue the necessary tax-code changes to foster these new options. But the government also has a role to play in providing the resources for long-term solutions. Just as government invests in medical and scientific research to cure diseases, we need to fund the journalism experiments that might help heal our democracy.

Along those lines, we propose the creation of a journalism jobs program that supports investigative reporting and provides multimedia training for new and veteran journalists. We also believe the government must fund research-and-development efforts for experimentation with innovative journalism models, as well as support a new public-media system that transforms public broadcasting into a world-class noncommercial news operation.

To be clear, we oppose content regulation and any policies that would restrict speech or favor certain speakers. But we should embrace policies that promote free speech and the widest possible dissemination of diverse viewpoints.

These structural changes benefit everyone involved: the media owners who wish to either rid themselves of money-losing ventures or shed debt to better focus on journalism; the journalists who wish to practice their craft according to the ideals that first drew them to the profession; and the communities that media are meant to serve.

Unfortunately, many newspaper companies believe that setting up new "pay walls," suing bloggers who excerpt their content, or meeting in secret to set online prices is the way to save journalism. Others believe we should do nothing because the Internet will magically combine with market forces to give us the journalism we need. But given recent closures and bankruptcies of major newspapers — and the ongoing cutbacks in radio and TV journalism — we cannot merely wait to see what organically emerges to replace the news.

Building a new media system will require broad engagement from journalists, academics, philanthropists, activists, policymakers, media owners and — most important — the public.

We must be proactive through public policy and public engagement to advocate for an inclusive media system. For too long, journalism has marginalized communities of color, women and other disenfranchised groups. The depth of this crisis calls for something more than window dressing or incremental reforms.

We can't miss this historic opportunity for vigorous experimentation with bold new models. This is a chance we cannot afford to waste.

article originally published at Seattle Times.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey