Journalism Is a Public Good and Should Be Publicly Funded

Essay by Patrick Walters: “News deserts” have proliferated across the U.S. Half of the nation’s more than 3,140 counties now have only one newspaper—and nearly 200 of them have no paper at all. Of the publications that survive, researchers have found many are “ghosts” of their former selves.

Journalism has problems nationally: CNN announced hundreds of layoffs at the end of 2022, and National Geographic laid off the last of its staff writers this June. In the latter month the Los Angeles Times cut 13 percent of its newsroom staff. But the crisis is even more acute at the local level, with jobs in local news plunging from 71,000 in 2008 to 31,000 in 2020. Closures and cutbacks often leave people without reliable sources that can provide them with what the American Press Institute has described as “the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their daily lives.”

Americans need to understand that journalism is a vital public good—one that, like roads, bridges and schools, is worthy of taxpayer support. We are already seeing the disastrous effects of otherwise allowing news to disintegrate in the free market: namely, a steady supply of misinformation, often masquerading as legitimate news, and too many communities left without a quality source of local news. Former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has a called this a “crisis of American democracy.”

The terms “crisis” and “collapse” have become nearly ubiquitous in the past decade when describing the state of American journalism, which has been based on a for-profit commercial model since the rise of the “penny press” in the 1830s. Now that commercial model has collapsed amid the near disappearance of print advertising. Digital ads have not come close to closing the gap because Google and other platforms have “hoovered up everything,” as Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Journalism at Columbia University, told the Nieman Journalism Lab in a 2018 interview. In June the newspaper chain Gannett sued Google’s parent company, alleging it has created an advertising monopoly that has devastated the news industry.

Other journalism models—including nonprofits such as MinnPost, collaborative efforts such Broke in Philly and citizen journalism—have had some success in fulfilling what Lewis Friedland of the University of Wisconsin–Madison called “critical community information needs” in a chapter of the 2016 book The Communication Crisis in America, and How to Fix It. Friedland classified those needs as falling in eight areas: emergencies and risks, health and welfare, education, transportation, economic opportunities, the environment, civic information and political information. Nevertheless, these models have proven incapable of fully filling the void, as shown by the dearth of quality information during the early years of the COVID pandemic. Scholar Michelle Ferrier and others have worked to bring attention to how news deserts leave many rural and urban areas “impoverished by the lack of fresh, daily local news and information,” as Ferrier wrote in a 2018 article. A recent study also found evidence that U.S. judicial districts with lower newspaper circulation were likely to see fewer public corruption prosecutions.

growing chorus of voices is now calling for government-funded journalism, a model that many in the profession have long seen as problematic…(More)”.