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A Pivot to Digital Shouldn't Spell the End of Local News

By vowing to increase support for public media and dedicate funds to newsgathering, a proposal put forth by Bernie Sanders is raising a question that's rarely come up in political debates: How can policymakers intervene to help revitalize local news and put journalists back to work?

The challenge to creating viable and vibrant local news reporting, writes Karry, is creating "the political will to craft new policies to subsidize local, independent and noncommercial news and information. More presidential candidates must address the shifting economics of the media marketplace that threaten the future of journalism. They should offer their own bold ideas to save journalism and debate the issue before a national audience." (Photo: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Last Saturday, the final printed edition of the Vindicator rolled off the presses in Youngstown, Ohio. After 150 years, the city’s last remaining daily closed its doors, handing its subscription list and masthead to the Tribune Chronicle, based in nearby Warren, which has begun to produce a dramatically pared-down online version of the “Old Vindy.”

The editors of the new digital Vindicator assured readers that they will “consistently strive to produce this newspaper with good journalism.”

But gone are almost all of the 144 employees who once collected paychecks at the printed daily.  

"Before it’s too late we must find ways to support journalism that actually meet our societal and democratic needs."

The Vindicator is following in the footsteps of other U.S.-based papers that have ceased production of daily print editions and live on in online versions that are phantoms of their former selves.

The pivot to digital journalism may be a response to the news-consumption habits of more and more people in the United States. But it’s a shift that hasn’t saved tens of thousands of reporters from the unemployment line.

Between the beginning of 2004 and the end of 2016, the number of U.S.-newspaper employees dropped by more than half—from 375,000 to about 173,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some, like Politico’s Jack Shafer, argue that the job losses are just a byproduct of the creative destruction of the free market. In his words, “the [newspaper] industry is dying for good reasons:” it couldn’t keep pace with the digital economy.

But Shafer fails to acknowledge that news production and distribution in the United States (and other Western democracies) have never been entirely dependent on the whims of the marketplace.

Public subsidies for a public good

From our nation’s founding, we’ve created public policies to subsidize the sharing of news and information. The Postal Act of 1792 subsidized postage rates for newspapers, pamphlets and other print media considered socially beneficial.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and, eventually, PBS and NPR.

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In the 50 years since, the media landscape has undergone seismic shifts and audiences have become more diverse. It’s time we rethought public media’s mission and create policies that could save local reporters’ jobs and keep communities engaged and informed.

Along these lines, Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders last week outlined policy proposals designed to support local journalism and combat the forces of its demise.

Among other ideas, Sanders is considering a tax on targeted ads sold by highly profitable companies like Facebook and Google. He cited a proposal Free Press Action put forth that would generate up to $2 billion each year to support local-news startups, sustain investigative projects, and seed civic-engagement initiatives connecting reporters with the people they serve.

A pivot to public media

By vowing to increase support for public media and dedicate funds to newsgathering, Sanders is raising a question that’s rarely come up in political debates: How can policymakers intervene to help revitalize local news and put journalists back to work?

Our proposal offers a course correction for an online economy that’s decimated the ranks of local reporters. It also recognizes that the journalism crisis isn’t just a commercial issue driven by the marketplace, but one that will have a profound impact on our democracy.

Even across the news industry, there’s growing acceptance that subsidies may be necessary to bolster news production. A 2019 survey of news and media professionals conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 58 percent expected to see significant support this year from foundations and other kinds of nonprofits, tech platforms or governments.

Survey respondents realize that the pivot to digital has marked a massive transfer of wealth away from enterprises like theirs that produce news to those, like Facebook and Google, that don’t. Without a rebalancing in the form of a solution like the ad-revenue tax, we’re likely to see waves of newsroom layoffs continue through this decade and beyond—further weakening journalists’ ability to protect the vulnerable and hold the powerful to account.

We can’t withstand the loss of many more newspapers like the Vindicator. Before it’s too late we must find ways to support journalism that actually meet our societal and democratic needs.

The challenge is to create the political will to craft new policies to subsidize local, independent and noncommercial news and information.

More presidential candidates must address the shifting economics of the media marketplace that threaten the future of journalism. They should offer their own bold ideas to save journalism and debate the issue before a national audience.

If we act now to implement new public policies, we have a real chance to create a healthier information system, one that keeps pace with the digital world while revitalizing the civic-minded journalism that’s disappearing from our communities.

Timothy Karr

Timothy Karr

Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy for Free Press Action Fund, the advocacy organization that fights for everyone’s rights to connect and communicate. Follow him on Twitter: @TimKarr.

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