In the immediate term, some combination of charitable giving and government funding will be necessary to keep local journalism alive until new commercial models can be developed.
Twenty–five hundred years ago, the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Sometimes called the founder of the genre of tragedy, his words seem prophetic today as we assume a war-like stance in combatting a contemporary tragedy. Indeed, at this critical moment, the messengers of truth – trained, professional journalists – are themselves becoming another casualty of this war. While the demise of journalism, especially at a local level, has escalated rapidly since the arrival of the digital age and the collapse of the print ad-based revenue model, the trend has accelerated dramatically in recent weeks, and now demands even more urgent attention.
As Ben Smith argued recently in The New York Times, the existing business model of for-profit local newspapers may no longer be viable. While a handful of national news organizations like the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post have a bright future, many local newspapers do not, even papers that have been pillars of their communities for decades. Because information now flows so easily and economically online, some smaller, local news organizations may need to pursue exclusively online journalism models as an important element of their future.
Last month, Margaret Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post “More than 2,000 newspapers have closed over the past 15 years, and a growing number of American counties are now news deserts, places where there is no regular source of local news.” Advertising revenues for newspapers in the US had fallen by 70% since 2006 before the COVID-19 crisis began. In recent weeks, advertising dollars have almost ground to a halt as a result of the pandemic. Kristen Hare at the Poynter Institute in Florida has begun cataloguing the newsroom layoffs, furloughs, and closures since the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s a long list that will certainly grow much longer.
We cannot stand by and allow this to happen. The objective is to save journalism itself, and to provide a model wherein journalists, especially at a local level, can continue to work. The key to any of these efforts is to ensure that someone is paying these local journalists to do their jobs. The question is how to do this, both in the immediate term to staunch the bleeding, and in the longer term where a viable economic model for journalism must be created.
In the immediate term, some combination of charitable giving and government funding will be necessary to keep local journalism alive until new commercial models can be developed. Smith and others have proposed a range of interesting options such as the creation of a new network of non-profit online newsrooms. This approach is modeled on the Texas Tribune, a successful and innovative regional news site funded by a local businessman named John Thornton and other donors. The Knight Foundation and others have developed and helped to fund a range of these laudable efforts.
Other commentators, mostly journalists themselves, have urged some form of government funding. Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, co-founders of Report for America and long-time journalists, have proposed that a future federal stimulus plan should include “$500 million in spending for public health ads through local media.” Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Craig Aaron, the CEO of Free Press, a nonprofit advocacy organization, has proposed government funding “earmarked specifically for emergency support, education, and especially local journalism”; supporting newsrooms committed to local coverage directly; and establishing a “First Amendment Fund” to support new approaches to news gathering. Some combination of these and other short-term measures need to be advanced to help mitigate the decline of local news organizations and keep local journalism alive.
In the longer term, however, journalism is a business, and its problems can only be solved with the central involvement of business leaders, locally and nationally. The future for local news will require the development of viable business models for local journalism, including but not limited to newspapers. As I have written previously, business leaders in every community across this country have the skills, experience, and resources to help new and existing news outlets develop viable commercial models. They should draw on the increasingly popular social venture capital model to test emerging business models for local news. The social venture model provides seed-funding to for-profit social enterprises, in return for achieving a reasonable financial gain while delivering positive social impact to the world. Crucially, this approach does not require perpetual support: if after a reasonable period the business in which they have invested does not gain financial traction, the enterprise would close.
And though these are local challenges, they will require a national strategy to develop both short-term emergency measures and longer-term sustainable models to save local journalism. Last year I called for the creation of a Marshall Plan to save local journalism, one that would enlist the talents, energies, and financial resources of government, the private sector, and philanthropy. At this time of profound public health and economic crisis, it may seem wishful thinking to add to our list of current national priorities. But such a crisis actually reminds us of the need to preserve and strengthen journalism because of the contribution it makes to public debate and the check it can provide on wayward political leadership.