“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.
A growing chorus of voices is now calling for government-funded journalism, a model that many in the profession have long seen as problematic.
The U.S. government first started subsidizing journalism when it began offering postal subsidies to newspapers in 1792. Governmental support for the press has since continued, notably with the development of a massive public relations infrastructure at federal and state agencies in the 19th and 20th centuries. In his 1998 book Governing with the News, scholar Timothy E. Cook noted that in this system, “government workers are paid by public funds to help generate the news.”
There have also been more direct efforts, especially when Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. That move represented government actively entering the domestic media world. Decades before, in 1942, the U.S. government started Voice of America overseas as part of an effort to combat Nazi propaganda. Nevertheless, the dominant perspective in the country has long revolved around journalism being free from government intervention. This is frequently referred to as a “negative” interpretation of the First Amendment. What is often overlooked is the “positive” interpretation. In a 2022 essay, Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania said the latter perspective focuses on government’s affirmative role to help guarantee the public access to a “diverse and informative media system.”
This approach to media is desperately needed, especially in an information ecosystem overrun by the profit-minded and algorithmic-based approaches of tech platforms such as Google, Twitter (aka X) and Facebook, which prioritize clicks rather than public service. Public media such as NPR, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and PBS backed away from Twitter after its CEO Elon Musk suggested NPR—which receives minimal government funding and relies on memberships and sponsorships—was a “government-funded” news organization akin to China’s Xinhua News Agency.
While Musk’s labeling of NPR is inaccurate, his misrepresentation is emblematic of the fundamental challenge to overcome if public media is to help solve the crises of news deserts and misinformation. Accurate, well-researched, contextualized, current information about local communities—i.e., journalism—needs to be considered what economists call a “public good.” Public goods are “nonexcludable” and thus available to all.
For that to happen, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the American view on journalism. Quality information cannot be seen as an optional luxury for the well-off. We need to see it as a critical need, like schools, roads, bridges, clean water and emergency personnel. Seen this way, the argument for publicly funded journalism changes dramatically.
There are, of course, important challenges. The “negative” interpretation of the First Amendment focuses on the ways American media is largely protected from government intervention and regulation—outside of exceptions such as obscenity, libel and infringement on intellectual property. The threat of authoritarian intervention must not be discounted amid partisan accusations of truthful reports as “fake news” and Donald Trump’s labeling of journalists as the “enemy of the people.” When considering these risks, we must not overlook the ways that for-profit corporations are key players in the “capture” of media and the ways that corporate mindsets have gutted newsrooms across the U.S.
Journalism is in what economists call a state of “market failure,” one that media economist Robert Picard has long maintained may merit thoughtful public intervention. This support could come through tax credits that people could use to support news outlets of their choosing. News organizations could be granted tax-exempt status like churches or public schools. Designated tax revenue (for example, from levies on electronics and tech platforms and companies or from “spectrum auctions”) could be developed to support independent journalism. This funding could be overseen by a bolstered Corporation for Public Communication, as scholars Mark Lloyd and Lewis Friedland suggested in a chapter of The Communication Crisis in America, and How to Fix It. Such a board would need to be publicly appointed or elected—with the goal of assessing whether the work of a funding recipient met the public’s information needs. This would help build the infrastructure of state-supported journalism rather than something that could devolve into a state-run propaganda arm.
Research has found consistent relationships between the prevalence of poverty and news deserts. This is both an equality and public health problem, one that will never be resolved until American society recalibrates how it thinks about journalism. It must be considered as much an educational institution as the local elementary school, as essential to public health as a community hospital, as worthy of government investment as a Main Street business district. Without this shift, our news ecosystem will continue serving largely those who are most advantaged; it will leave vulnerable communities in the dark; and it will further drive a wedge between people who have access to honest news and those deluged only with lies and propaganda.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.