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Taking Media Out of the Market


Victor Pickard (@VWPickard) is the C. Edwin Baker Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change Center.

It’s been a particularly brutal stretch for American journalism. Even for an industry that’s become synonymous with precarity and crisis, the recent job losses have been jolting. The Los Angeles Times announced last week that it’s cutting 115 jobs, more than 20% of its newsroom. In December, the Washington Post, once hailed as a promising new model for sustaining journalism in the digital age, eliminated 240 positions through volunteer buyouts, nearly 10% of its employees.

This recent spate of downsizing is part of a longer trend: the U.S. has lost almost one-third of its newspapers and nearly two-thirds of its newspaper journalists since 2005. The shocking decimation of the journalism industry has led to the proliferation of ever-expanding news deserts in which more than one half of American counties have little or no access to local news. And it will only get worse.

There’s never a good time for mass layoffs in the journalism sector, but it’s especially dire as we head into a pivotal election year and the world suffers from brutal wars and climate catastrophes. This isn’t just a journalism crisis: it’s a democracy crisis. And it’s a problem that we must collectively confront as a society.

Billionaires Won’t Save Us

One lesson is crystal clear from the recent bloodletting: the “benevolent billionaire” model for saving journalism—the belief that through their noblesse oblige to democracy, wealthy saviors would transcend the merciless political economy of capitalism to singlehandedly rescue the fourth estate—was always founded on false hope. The likes of Jeff Bezos (owner of the Washington Post) and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong (owner of the Los Angeles Times) lost tens of millions of dollars last year despite sustained attempts to generate new revenue streams. Operating a newspaper is an expensive undertaking, and even billionaires can suffer from sticker shock.

Meanwhile, not all media oligarchs are as “benevolent” as Bezos and Soon-Shiong. Take, for instance, the once-formidable Baltimore Sun, which was acquired earlier this month by David D. Smith, the executive chairman of the right-wing Sinclair network of television stations that’s notorious for driving media to the right, reducing coverage of local politics, and parroting Trump talking points. Other distressed papers are being scooped up by vulture capitalists like Alden Global Capital, now the second-largest newspaper publisher in the U.S.

These downturns, even if predictable, should bring further clarity to the fact that we need systemic alternatives to commercial media, especially nonprofit and public-ownership models. Working towards a structural fix to the failing commercial model for local news means going beyond small-bore reforms. We must clearly articulate a bolder, longer-term vision for reimagining what journalism should be.

Non-Reformist Media Reforms

Unfortunately, most reform initiatives thus far amount to placing Band-Aids on gaping wounds. Whether forcing platforms like Google and Meta to pay publishers and broadcasters more for their content or erecting paywalls that force readers to shell out money, the ongoing reliance on advertising and other monetization schemes are dead ends. Even most policies that call for various kinds of media subsidies—long overdue baby steps in the right direction—ultimately aim to prop up the commercial sector without making major structural changes and leaving the same ownership model intact.

The current crisis calls for “non-reformist reforms” that aim to transform journalism by mitigating or even eliminating the commercial pressures that prevent our news media from serving democratic needs. Such a project should rely on a two-pronged approach of de-commercializing and democratizing media outlets, with the end goal of building entirely new institutions committed to participatory democracy.

Ultimately, our strategies must be informed by the reality that no long-term commercial future exists for most journalism. Tweaking market mechanisms and scrambling for new business models is futile when the market itself is a core part of the problem. Our democracy requires that we disentangle news and information from capitalism—we need a horizon for journalism beyond the market.

A major impediment to this kind of radical project is our inability to imagine alternatives to the commercial media system. However, the burgeoning nonprofit news sector—though often overly-reliant on private capital—demonstrates what journalists can do when unyoked from commercial imperatives. Nonprofit exemplars such as City Bureau, Outlier Media, ProPublica, and the Texas Tribune all conduct top-notch journalism and, compared to their commercial counterparts, are often more responsive to their respective communities and to larger social missions. An infusion of philanthropic money into local news by Press Forward—more than $500 million over five years—suggests this sector will continue to expand. But it’s still woefully insufficient given the scope and severity of the crisis.

Ultimately, only a robust public media sector can commit to a universal service ideal that guarantees media access for everyone. We can leverage public infrastructures such as post offices, libraries, public access media, public broadcasting stations, and universities as initial building blocks for a new public media system. But much greater public investments are still necessary, especially with the US being a global outlier for how little it funds public media.

Toward this aim, non-reformist reforms have strategic value by guiding policy interventions in the present juncture that seek to expand future opportunities—interventions that can mobilize and diversify coalitions, shift commonsense, build power from below, and broaden the terrain of struggle for structural reform. Therefore, any initiative that erodes the commercial and anti-democratic design of existing media institutions—by transitioning them into nonprofit outlets, facilitating public media partnerships, unionizing newsrooms, and establishing media cooperatives—can help radicalize news workers and engage communities while laying the groundwork for more transformative change in the future.

Ambitious plans for these kinds of nonmarket-based models are beginning to proliferate. Elsewhere, I’ve called for a practical utopianism embodied by the Public Media Center, a new anchor institution established in every community that’s federally guaranteed but locally owned and controlled. A complementary approach is the Local Journalism Initiative, which enables people to vote on allocating funds to local news organizations of their choice, thereby guaranteeing competition between multiple newsrooms in every county.

Regardless of the precise model, our North Star should remain fixed, even if it takes decades to realize: all members of society should have access to news and information from local media institutions that look like and are operated by the communities they serve. And everyone should be empowered to tell their own stories through their own media. None of this can happen, however, until we take journalism out of the market.