The Free Press Is A Pillar of Our Democratic Infrastructure — and It’s Crumbling. Policymakers Should Support Local News in the Infrastructure Bill.May 26, 2021
In the next few months, Congress will debate what should be in the scope of an investment of up to $4 trillion in America’s infrastructure. A host of factors — years of wear and tear with inadequate investment, levels of federal spending that pale in comparison to those of other leading democracies, changing demographics, and new business models enabled by the digital revolution — have resulted in crumbling structures, gaps in service, and the occasional outright collapse, causing injuries and costing lives. Often, people of color were particularly victimized by these structures. Today, our weakened infrastructure can barely withstand the forces of a volatile climate.
But I’m not talking about bridges, or ports, or waterways, or airports, or public parks (though they get barely a passing grade, either). I’m talking about the crumbling of local news, and its critical role in our democratic infrastructure. The climate I’m talking about is the divided political climate, which among other things, has created a dangerous storm of motivated misinformation, and the resulting near-collapse of our democratic institutions refers to the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6.
Over the past few decades, academics and professional journalists alike have sounded the alarm on the state of news in America. We’ve lost 60% of our newspaper reporters. Some 1,800 communities have lost newspapers. News deserts and “ghost newspapers” litter the country, and the information vacuum has been easily filled by partisan hyperbole and harmful disinformation on social media.
The press, the so-called Fourth Estate, was so named because it was considered an essential moderator among the clergy, the nobility, and the common populace in European societies. Drawing upon that tradition, the American founders wrote in the Federalist Papers that the liberty of the press “shall be inviolably preserved.” They found ways to provide content-neutral support — like postal subsidies — to ensure access to a free press. We have also written about the vital role local newspapers, in particular, play in ensuring community welfare, civic engagement, and government integrity. Studies show that citizens without access to local journalism feel less of a sense of cohesion and community, vote less, are less informed, are less likely to run for office, and experience higher corruption, costs, and corporate malfeasance in their communities. That is part of the reason that so many other democratic governments provide support to journalism; these include direct subsidies based on the number of journalists employed in Canada and Denmark, delivery and/or distribution subsidies in Norway, Sweden, and France, and reduced value-added tax in the United Kingdom.
The free press is not the only pillar supporting our American democratic infrastructure, and it’s not the only one that’s crumbling. Free and fair elections are another: As of March of this year, as part of a backlash to historic voter turnout and fueled by the Big Lie of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, state lawmakers have introduced 361 bills with restrictive voting provisions in 47 states. Civic education makes up another pillar: Study after study shows a lack of proficiency about fundamental aspects of our democratic government. This is in part because civics offerings were cut or underfunded from schools as the curriculum narrowed and focused on “core subjects” more conducive to standardized testing. (A bipartisan group in Congress has sought to remedy this with an additional $1 billion in funding for civics education.) These other pillars, though, are dependent on the availability of relevant community news in order to turn them from theory to actual civic engagement. As others have asserted, the free press is a true — and maybe the ultimate — public good.
So now, while we are considering investments in roads and airports, we should also act to save the free press — the core component of our democractic infrastructure — and build it back better for all Americans. At best, that means using greater public investment to address the commercial and financial incentives that have put the integrity of journalism at risk, and the exclusion of under-represented communities in ownership, oversight, and coverage. At least, an investment in local news is a way to ensure return on investment for the other funds in the infrastructure bill. Research has shown that fewer reporters will mean more waste on civic projects.
Building Congressional Momentum for Proposals to Support Local News
There is no shortage of ideas for how to structure federal support to shore up local news. Researchers, advocates, and policymakers have put forward a range of potential solutions. For example, just last week, after describing journalism as “critical infrastructure,” U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell said she would seek $2.3 billion worth of grants and tax credits to help local newspapers and broadcasters as part of the federal infrastructure plan. Cantwell, a longtime advocate for local journalism, elaborated on the crisis in local journalism in a very helpful report last year. It’s likely that she’ll shine a light on the topic in her new role as Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Also last week, Senators Brian Schatz, Michael Bennet, and Amy Klobuchar, and Representative Marc Veasey reintroduced the Future of Local News Act, which would create a nonpartisan, independent committee to examine and report on the role of local news gathering in sustaining democracy in the United States and propose policies and mechanisms that could reinvigorate it. We support this bill and believe any ideas coming out of the committee could complement shorter-term proposals.
Days before, directly inspired by the 1935 Federal Writers’ Project of the New Deal Era, Representatives Ted W. Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced legislation, the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, that would create a new grant program administered by the Department of Labor to hire America’s unemployed and underemployed journalists and writers. It will also create a nationally administered and searchable repository that archives the stories of America’s struggle through the pandemic.
There is already strong bipartisan support for the Local News Sustainability Act from Representatives Ann Kirkpatrick and Dan Newhouse and 76 other bipartisan sponsors, which consists of a system of refundable tax credits. We like that this bill empowers citizens, small businesses, and news outlets themselves to invest in local news. Others prefer a system of vouchers that would empower Americans to donate to their favored media outlets. Others point to early successes at “replanting” news organizations from financially-motivated owners and into community hands. Public Knowledge’s own proposal for a “Superfund for the Internet” would mandate that dominant digital platforms adopt an approach to content moderation that serves the public interest and create a trust fund of up to $6 billion in new revenue for news organizations.
One of the contributors to the crisis in local journalism is the dominance and business practices of the largest digital platforms, especially Google and Facebook. That’s part of the reason we think it is so important to address the power of those platforms directly, with new pro-competition rules like non-discrimination and interoperability. Large media outlets that are most invested in legacy business models, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters and the News Media Alliance, are backing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which proposes to create a four-year “safe harbor” from antitrust law, allowing publishers to band together to negotiate compensation terms with the largest online platforms. As we’ve discussed, Public Knowledge is very concerned about this bill. It will likely serve to entrench existing power relationships between platforms and the largest news publishers, as well as encourage further consolidation. The bill contains no restrictions on these negotiations to ensure the legal sharing or linking of content is preserved under existing copyright law.
And lastly, there are no guarantees that would ensure the funds are used to put journalists back on the beat.
A Window of Opportunity To Fortify Critical Democratic Infrastructure
Getting a bill passed won’t be easy, despite the history of public support for news since the earliest days of our democracy and the amount of trust citizens place in publicly supported sources of news. Years of politically motivated claims of “fake news” and assertions that a free press is “the enemy of the people” have made it even harder for lawmakers on the Right — who have never loved the notion of government support for journalism to begin with — to support news organizations. On the Left, there’s a strong critique of the way legacy news organizations have sustained if not furthered the marginalization of certain communities and defended the status quo. And the journalism community will want to see proposals structured in a way that are content- and platform-neutral, future-friendly, and most important of all, ensure editorial independence.
We believe these are solvable if policymakers and regulators can center on the foundational public service mission of journalism as an essential pillar of democratic infrastructure, as our founders intended.
About Lisa Macpherson
Lisa is a Senior Policy Fellow, focused on countering misinformation on the internet and developing alternative business models for local journalism. Prior to Public Knowledge, Lisa was a consumer marketing executive at Fisher-Price, Timberland, Hallmark, and Custom Ink, and an independent marketing consultant at Pernod Ricard. Her experience driving digital marketing transformation on behalf of brands led to concerns over the broader impacts of digital technology on individual well being, civil society, journalism, and democracy. She applied to the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University, where she is now a Senior Fellow studying how to mitigate the negative externalities of digital technology. Lisa is a current or past member of the Association of National Advertisers, Marketing 50 (M50), and the Marketing Leadership Council of the Conference Board, and a founding member of the Council of CMOs of the Conference Board. In 2017 she was selected as one of the D.C. Techweek 100, which recognizes excellence in technology and entrepreneurship in the DC area. Lisa received her B.A. from Colgate University and her M.B.A. from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She was raised near Boston, MA, and loves to travel, read, cook, and spend time with her daughter, Kelsey.