Why NPR's Layoffs Are a Public Policy Problem
The struggle to find the revenue to keep NPR reporters on their beats is a failure to advocate for policies that would increase the public funding it and other noncommercial media outlets need to thrive.
More than 50 years on, it's easy to wonder what went wrong with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the legislation that created public media as we've come to know it in the United States. Despite the popular understanding that a healthy democracy requires a free press, the U.S. Congress remains reluctant to offer public subsidies for any journalism that doesn't operate under the dictates of the commercial marketplace.
Nowhere is this more evident than in news from earlier this week that NPR plans to cut 10% of its staff to make up a budget shortfall of $30 million. The reason NPR's chief executive gives for the layoffs is not the routine failure of Congress to fund public radio journalism at the level it needs, but a "sharp decline in our revenues from corporate sponsors."
"Despite being the wealthiest nation on the planet, the United States impoverishes its public media infrastructures," writes professor Victor Pickard, co-director of the Media, Inequality, and Change Center at the University of Pennsylvania (and Free Press' board chair). This has left nominally public media outlets to fend for themselves in the marketplace. Outlets like NPR and PBS—as well as the many local stations affiliated with them—receive the "bulk of their funding in the form of private capital from individual contributors, foundations, and corporations," he adds.
The net effect of this private sector dependency is a public media system that is by definition not noncommercial. And that affects not just the future of journalism in the United States but our democracy as well.
The Public Broadcasting Act is very clear on the matter: It amends a section of the 1934 Communications Act by inserting the word "noncommercial" to describe the type of radio and television outlets that would receive public funding from the newly created Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
It's an insertion that underscores the act's goals: to set up a free and functional noncommercial media sector that could counterbalance the market-driven media that dominated the public sphere then as it dominates it now.
The poor antidote
The CPB was supposed to fund this antidote to profit-driven news and information. In the words of President Johnson, who signed the Public Broadcasting Act, this was about offering public support for media that serve "great and not the trivial purposes."
But such greatness is hard to achieve with Congress' paltry annual offering to the CPB: At $465 million in FY 2022, the public allocation boils down to a little more than $1.40 per capita in the United States. By comparison, the United Kingdom spends more than $81 per person, and France more than $75. Head further north and the numbers head north as well: Denmark's per-person spending is more than $93, Finland's more than $100, and Norway's more than $110. And it isn't just a European trend: Japan (+$53/capita) and South Korea (+$14) show their appreciation for publicly funded media at levels that put the U.S. outlay to shame.
This bleak math is all too familiar to those who follow public media policy in the United States. Lawmakers here continue to believe that publicly funded media should remain subordinate to its corporate counterpart—and that the work of journalism is best suited to the private sector.
That doesn't make sense. Commercial journalism has been in crisis for decades now, as popular news consumption habits have changed and advertisers have had to find new ways to reach these consumers—including ways that don't help fund the sorts of journalism democracies need to stay healthy. Between 2008 and 2020, more than 1,000 U.S. newspapers ceased printing, and the number of newspaper newsroom employees shrank by more than half.
As the commercial model for news production falters, the last thing we should be doing is funding public interest journalism at levels that force noncommercial outlets like NPR to mimic the for-profit news business. "Allowing our public media to become so dependent on advertising revenue (and other sources of private capital and 'enhanced underwriting') was always bad social policy," Pickard wrote in response to my online comments about NPR's current dilemma.
A 2021 study co-authored by Pickard and professor Timothy Neff of the University of Leicester finds that more robust funding for public media strengthens a given country's democracy—with increased public knowledge about civic affairs, more diverse media coverage, and lower levels of extremist views.
Conversely, the loss of quality local journalism and investigative reporting has far-reaching societal harms. Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund (and a former Free Press staff member) has cataloged the growing body of evidence showing that declines in local news and information lead to drops in civic engagement. "The faltering of newspapers, the consolidation of TV and radio, and the rising power of social media platforms are not just commercial issues driven by the market," Stearns writes. "They are democratic issues with profound implications for our communities."
Innovations in noncommercial media are poised to help fill the massive local news-and-information gap that the collapse of market-driven news models has created. But these innovative outlets require help via local, state, and federal policies.
Global policies, local examples
As a start, Free Press Action has called for a quadrupling of public funds for noncommercial news and information. This kind of congressional commitment would recognize that depending on the private sector and emulating commercial models isn't a viable approach for the longevity of local news and information. To get there at the federal level, Free Press Action has proposed a new tax on digital advertising to fund the kinds of innovative news production that are now needed. A tax of 2% would generate more than $2 billion annually, enough to support new noncommercial media models, and lessen any dependence on corporate underwriters for revenue.
Dramatically increasing public investment in locally engaged reporting would help support the wide array of new nonprofit outlets that are focused on meeting the information needs of communities that commercial media too often ignore. Many of these new models are profiled in The Roadmap for Local News, an actionable plan to ensure that every U.S. community has access to necessary public interest news and information.
Co-authored by Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat, Darryl Holliday of City Bureau, and Mike Rispoli of Free Press, The Roadmap expands journalism's forms into new and previously underserved communities while sharpening the definition of what it is for. It calls on lawmakers to cultivate and pass public policies that support the expansion of civic information while maintaining editorial independence.
In New Jersey, Free Press Action helped conceive and create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, an independent nonprofit funded by a state budget appropriation. The consortium, whose board includes representatives from public colleges and universities across the state, supports inventive local news projects like the Newark News & Story Collaborative and the Bloomfield Information Project, which train local residents to report the news from their own perspectives.
In California, Free Press Action supported state legislation that dedicated $25 million to fund local reporting in underserved and underrepresented communities statewide. The money will be distributed through a fellowship program housed at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. (Free Press' Rispoli will serve on the program's Advisory Board).
More than 50 years after the Public Broadcasting Act, Free Press is also looking 50 years into the future. Through the work of the Media 2070 project, Free Press envisions ways the media can serve as levers for racial justice. This includes engaging policymakers in the repair and reconciliation needed to redress centuries of harm news outlets have inflicted on Black communities.
As NPR struggles to find the revenue to keep its reporters on their beats, it shouldn't see the problem as a failure to raise advertising revenue from corporate underwriters. It's a failure to advocate for policies that would increase the public funding it and other noncommercial media outlets need to thrive.
If we're serious about the future of journalism and civic information in the United States, we need to look locally for innovations in not-for-profit news production, and abroad for examples of more robust ways to fund it.