The societal ramifications of the death of local journalism in the United States are as widespread as they are depressingly predictable. As Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols recently wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “It is not simply that functional self-government is impossible without credible journalism with all that forebodes; it is that local newspapers have provided the social glue that brought communities to life, as places where people see themselves as participating in a joint enterprise with people they know and understand and care about. That is disintegrating.”
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks with McChesney and Nichols about how the slow death of America’s journalism ecosystem in the digital age has corresponded with the disintegration of the social fabric of the American republic. They also discuss McChesney and Nichols’s proposal of a Local Journalism Initiative and how it could improve life for communities around the country. Robert W. McChesney is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. John Nichols writes for The Nation and the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin. Along with cofounding Free Press with Josh Silver and Kimberly Longey in 2003, McChesney and Nichols have written several books on media and politics together, including most recently The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.
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Pre-Production/Studio: Cameron Granadino
Post Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us.
Today, we continue to examine the rise of the right, but really in the context of the media in our country. More specifically, how the dearth and death of local media has fueled the right and the world of disinformation. And as importantly, is the consolidation of media and the destruction of a vibrant local press as a serious threat to our democracy and our future. The struggle is tied to the fight for a socially, economically, and racially just society. One of the most important cornerstones of a democracy and one of the underlying principles of the US Constitution from the beginning is that of an independent and robust free press. Now, I know the United States has legacies we’re still struggling with, but a free press is critical to ensuring and strengthening our democracy, and it’s one of our legacies to cherish, hold tight, keep alive. So is there a resolution, and what would that look like? Our guests offer us an analysis of how we got here, what we face, and how we might begin to battle and have a discussion to resolve this.
Bob McChesney and John Nichols wrote a paper called “To Protect and Extend Democracy, Recreate Local News Media.” John Nichols is The Nation‘s correspondent in Washington, D.C., and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, written numerous books. Bob McChesney is professor of communications emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former editor over at Monthly Review. Both have authored many, many books. Besides that, they’ve also authored many books together, books like It’s the Media, Stupid; Our Media, Not Theirs; Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy; and most recently, The Death and Life of Journalism. And they’re also the co-founders of Free Press, The Nation‘s media reform network.
Gentlemen, welcome. Good to see you both. Good to have you back on with me.
John Nichols: It’s great to be with you, Marc.
Robert McChesney: Yep.
Marc Steiner: I really enjoyed this paper you all wrote. Let’s start by exploring the history of the free press, our roots, its role in democracy, that you really kind of lay out. I think we don’t really understand. It’s not just the words in the Constitution; this is something that’s fundamental to the beginning and to the progress of our democracy, to the battles for human rights in our own country. So who wants to begin? Bob, let me start with you. Let’s just begin to talk about this history of who we are.
Robert McChesney: When you study the founding of this country – And John and I have done this for a couple books now and we’ve both done it for other projects – It’s really striking how important having a free press is to this project. It’s unanimously understood that unless you have a credible press system the entire idea of having a republic or a Constitution collapses. Self-government is impossible.
There’s the famous quote by Thomas Jefferson in 1787 that’s often cited where he says, were I to decide whether to have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I would take the latter. People have taken that to mean he was an anti-government libertarian who really didn’t like government at all and he really just wanted the press to be able to do whatever they wanted. Instead, when you read the entire letter what you see is a very different understanding of what the role of the press is. In the same letter he says that the press system is the only way people without property can effectively participate in governance. Otherwise, he says, governance will be dominated by the wolves, who will devour the sheep. And he said, that’s exactly what the situation is in Europe where the wealthy basically control everything and the poor have no power. They wanted to stop that.
Now, our framers had a lot of problems, we all know them, and a lot of weaknesses. The people who actually wrote the Constitution were not pure democrats by any stretch of the imagination. But in this one point, understanding the central role of the press was at the foundation of everything they did and it’s something we should be very proud of as Americans, one of the great parts of the American tradition that we should embrace.
What really comes true when you look at this tradition is that it wasn’t just words. It wasn’t just, hey, let’s just talk about this and hope it happens. Instead, it was an extraordinary series of policies that were put in place, and subsidies, to make sure we had the greatest press system possible in the world so that people could participate in governance as actors, as players, with the information they needed to be involved.
The most important of these subsidies was the postal subsidy. Some people are shocked to hear this, but the post office was basically created to be the distribution wing of American newspapers. Over 90% of the weight of the traffic carried by the post office was newspapers. Two-thirds of what the post office carried were newspapers. It was basically the distribution arm of American newspapers and it did this virtually for free. It was a heavily subsidized government operation to make it possible for as many newspapers as possible to exist.
I’ll conclude on one note to wrap this up. When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America from France to visit in the 1830s he wrote his classic book Democracy in America. He was struck by how many newspapers there were. He said, everywhere you go, you see newspapers everywhere. They’re starting everywhere. And he said, it seems that the more equal society is, the more newspapers it has, and the more newspapers it has, the more equal it is. What was striking about this is that it wasn’t the result of the free market. Not many people were making money publishing newspapers. That was purely a result of public policy which made it so inexpensive to publish newspapers everyone was getting involved.
Marc Steiner: John, I want to pursue just what happened here. I think all three of us and many people watching this, not everybody, grew up in an era where there were multiple sources of media in our local communities. They covered national politics and they covered local stuff and they brought us information about our neighbors and what was happening in our world. Something clearly has shifted. So let’s talk about what was the growth – If you can call it growth – Of what we’ve come to today, from where we began, what we experienced?
John Nichols: Thank you, and thanks for having us on, Marc. I’ll pick up from the story Bob was telling –
Marc Steiner: Sure. Please.
John Nichols: …Because that’s the origin story, that this is a country, for all of its faults and all of its challenges, that was founded with a commitment to a free press. Not with an intellectual commitment to a free press but with a practical commitment to make it happen, to make sure that it flourished. And one addendum that I’ll put on what Bob was saying, that understanding of the necessity of a free press was rooted in, I think, an understanding on the part of at least some of the founders, not all of them, but at least some of them, that they were themselves fundamentally flawed, that things were going to have to change, that the country would need to progress.
In fact Thomas Paine and Jefferson both had lines basically where they said, if we were to lock the future into our way of doing things, it would be disastrous. So they wanted progress. They wanted that dialectic, if you will, with many newspapers, many ideas.
Some of those postal subsidies that Bob talks about, some of the first publications that got them were publications that were owned by abolitionists, including Black abolitionists. One of the few places where, before the Civil War, the US government was actually helping people of color was with postal subsidies. In fact, it’s important to understand that throughout the history of the country, this free press has again and again challenged the country to do better, to be more than what it was, to rise. There was this understanding throughout much of history.
Now, here’s what got interesting. After you had that initial beginning point where the government really did help publications to exist, help them to thrive, they got traction. They began to have a following. It became easier to print newspapers. It became easier to distribute them. The mail service worked very well. Horace Greeley sent out his papers from New York to be read by Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois.
Along the way, advertising rose. So advertisers would put an ad in a paper because it was being read by a lot of people. Newspaper owners figured out, wow, we can make money. We can sell ads in these mass-circulation publications and do well. Over time, you saw in cities across the country multiple newspapers often speaking to different communities.
When Bob and I did our research, to fast forward to the 1920s, 100 years ago in New York City there were 24 daily newspapers. People think, well, yeah, a lot of those were immigrant newspapers. Yes, they were. There were newspapers that spoke to different communities. There were Yiddish papers. There were Hebrew papers. There would ultimately be Hebrew papers. There was an Arabic daily newspaper in New York City 100 years ago, Spanish language, Italian, German. But there were also a lot of English-language newspapers. There was a diversity of ideology, and there was an understanding that people might read two or three newspapers in a day. They might read a morning paper and an afternoon paper. They might pick up one that they agreed with ideologically. They might even read one that they disagreed with. And this really functioned well up to a certain point.
Then, as often happens in capitalism, somebody figured out you can make a lot of money by reducing the number of newspapers and owning them all. So you started to see people merge and buy. What happened in New York is, again, we talked about those 24 newspapers, over time they began to reduce down. We now have three English-language daily newspapers on a relative mass circulation in New York which seems like a lot. It’s actually very little compared to what was.
But what happened is, again and again, newspapers merged and they became an individual institution. Then we saw the rise of this argument that newspapers would be unbiased, that they would give you a straight take on the news. Now, they never did. They still had biases. You had liberal papers, conservative papers. But increasingly you had one paper in a town instead of multiple papers. And there was an argument, well, that the newspaper is the source of news. You can trust it. You can rely on it. Often in many places they tried to do that, but they were basically money-making institutions that brought in a lot of bucks. If you owned a newspaper in even a relatively small town you could make a decent living. And they gave people a lot of news because you needed news to wrap around all those ads.
Well, as we got into the internet age, bringing it right up to now, the ads went away. I remember a number of years ago when Pepsi announced that it was going to shift its advertising almost all to the internet, and I said, this is a real change point that we ought to pause and recognize, because here you have Pepsi Cola, this institution that has sustained and supported so much journalism not by choice but through advertising, they’re not going to be doing it anymore. And all sorts of other entities as well.
So we ended up in a situation where the advertising revenues weren’t there. Suddenly, many of these institutions that had been built up to make a lot of money, consolidated to make a lot of money, were like, oh, there’s not a lot of money here anymore, so we’re out of here. We have had, since 2005, 2,200 newspapers in the United States close. 2,200. Since 2005 we have lost half – I want to emphasize that – Half of all working journalists in the United States. We’ve cut it in half and those numbers continue to go down.
Despite the rise of digital media, which does employ some folks, we’ve seen a dramatic, radical decline in the number of people who actually work for daily newspapers. Weekly newspapers, it’s even more devastating. In the United States today the majority of counties, which still are a unit of government that is a really vital one in most of this country, the number of counties that have a newspaper, half of them only have one. More than 200 counties in the US have no newspaper whatsoever, no local newspaper at all.
What we’re creating now is a situation, because the advertising is gone, because a lot of publishers just aren’t doing it, they’re either cutting it down to much less than what it was or just kicking it to the curb altogether and getting rid of it. So we’re creating news deserts across this country. We literally have vast structures of this country that no longer have local news. And as Bob and I argue, local news is really vital to sustaining an overall infrastructure of democracy.
Marc Steiner: Before we jump into the ideas that you posit in this paper about what we can do, how this can change, I also want to take a step back a bit more about what you both just said. I can remember growing up in Baltimore where we had three newspapers, three major newspapers. You had The Sun, you had the Baltimore News-American, and you had the AFRO-American. They were all major papers in the city. And then you had this plethora of community papers. Almost every neighborhood had a newspaper even in the early ’70s. We published one called the South Baltimore Voice and there was another South Baltimore paper that was much more conservative. It was like this all over the city.
Also, the 20th century had this beginning where you had what we called objective news, and you had newspapers like The Sun and others in cities around the country, they were seen as objective. But for the history of the United States much of the news, like it is coming to today, is really partisan, with a perspective, a political perspective. So I’m curious how that all fits into what we face today and what we face in the future.
You had so many great quotes in this article. Within that, let me just throw a little ringer in there. I think it was Elaine Godfrey from The Atlantic, you put a quote that said, “We don’t often stop to ponder that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.” You played on that in terms of how people lose their connection to what’s happening in the world. If you take all that into account in terms of the complex history of media in America, where does that put us today? What does that leave us?
John Nichols: In a very dark place where the events around us, which would’ve seemed inconceivable just a decade or two ago that are taking place, now seem inexorable given what’s going on in the country.
What happened with journalism is that… I think you’ve really touched on an important point, Marc, about this rise of objectivity. Throughout the 19th century, newspapers, which were the heart of journalism in the country, local daily newspapers, they were seen as political institutions. Horace Greeley, who John mentioned, the great editor, ran for president in 1872. Warren Harding was a publisher. All our great social movements, abolitionists, which we referred to with Frederick Douglass, all our great political activists were newspaper editors. They published papers that were distributed by the post office. They were strongly political institutions.
This rise in the neutral, objective news, that there’s one story to get it straight and that’s all you need, that corresponds directly with the rise of monopoly control of newspapers in local communities. If you have five papers in a town and you go down to one, which was the case in most American cities, something like that in the first 60 years of the 20th century, well, it’s going to look like something awful like Pravda or Izvestia suddenly if you only have one voice. Unless that one voice says, wait, we’re just telling a neutral truth. You can trust us because it’s neutral, and we’ve been trained at professional journalism school. I think that we all realize that we want our journalists to try to tell the truth, to be factually accurate, but the idea that there’s only one legitimate take on whether the United States should invade a country, we’ve learned from history, is preposterous.That there’s only one way to deal with an economic problem is preposterous.
So it’s very healthy and necessary to have multiple voices in a community, and those multiple voices should be communicating with each other. They should be leading dialogue, giving people solidarity, understanding there are other people in the same boat they’re in sharing the same concerns and there’s something they can do about it, so they get incentive to participate in social life. I think that’s what’s missing in America today. That’s why depression seems to be the order of the day. It’s not just people out in the sticks. It’s everywhere.
I’ll give an example. I moved back to Madison 10 years ago. When I first moved here in 1988 we had terrific local journalism by American standards. After just reading the two daily newspapers for six months I knew this town inside out. I was very comfortable here. I returned and the last few years the local media is so horrendously terrible that the only stuff I learn is when someone emails me something. And if they didn’t email me, I’d be completely in the dark. I’d be completely cut off from what’s going on in the city.
I think that’s true for every American. Even people who want to get involved don’t have the ability to do so, and it leads us to the point you talked about, where you’ve got a lot of lonely, ignorant, uninformed, desperate, unhappy people who basically aren’t social actors anymore at all and there’s no way for them to participate, really. That is the ground on which anti-democratic movements are founded.
Marc Steiner: I’m not one of those who believes in conspiracy theories and I argue against them all the time. If what happened to media in America, especially local media in America, is not some conspiracy but in reality is what has happened because of the system that we have, the unregulated free market system that is allowed to control everything in their monopolistic practices, that led to this, and the power of all of that. So let’s begin to talk about what it is that changes that, that creates this new dialogue in America, that creates this new way of having a press and a media that actually allows us to think through ideas and wrestle with them and have different perspectives. How do we get back to that? Not [back in a sense], but how do we get to the future where we actually create something new? John, go ahead.
John Nichols: Well, I’m just going to say that, to answer your question, we have to put one more piece of the puzzle into place.
Marc Steiner: Put it in there. What is it?
John Nichols: It is that everything that we’ve discussed up to this point, it kind of leaves out the elephant in the room. We are now at a point in our country where it’s remarkable that we’re sitting and talking about local journalism today, because every other media conversation in the country is about the anniversary of Jan. 6. It is about the fact that we had, for the first time since, I think, 1814, an attack on our Capitol, and for the first time in our history an attack on our Capitol by an organized group of Americans who sought to overturn the results of an election. A coup attempt.
You’re like, well, how did we get there? Why now, for the first time in our history do we have a coup attempt that not only wasn’t… It was averted in the moment, but the people involved weren’t held to account, still have not been held to account to a large extent, just individuals who went in the Capitol but not the people who were behind it, not the powerful folks. And why do we have polling that shows huge numbers of people believe completely false constructs about what happened on Jan. 6?
Well, the answer to that is what Bob and I have been talking about, this collapse of local news. The fact of the matter is that when we had a strong local news system in this country, we talked to one another. We maybe talked to one another directly, but we also did so through our media. If you had several newspapers, you might have a conservative paper, you might have a liberal paper, but they would both say at a certain point, well, there’s certain facts. We’re arguing about facts here. We’re arguing about reality here, not about just crazy opinions.
As we’ve seen the collapse of local media, what has happened? Everybody starts to look up. They look up to national media outlets, someplace to fill the void. They get their information less at a level where they know other people, where they know their sources of information, and they may get it from a right-wing talk radio host. They may get it from Fox News. Maybe they’ll get it from MSNBC. But increasingly they’ve gotten it from the internet and from even more nefarious sources, if you will. The end result is that propagandists have figured out how to speak directly to the American people who still want information. And that void that was created with the collapse of local news has now created a situation where we have massive numbers of Americans who get their information from folks who are actually trying to misinform, who are actually trying to create false constructs and to engage people politically, to anger and enrage people to such an extent that they might storm the Capitol of the United States to try and overturn an election result.
All of the pieces that we’ve talked about up to this point lead us to a spot where we have an urgent need, an urgent, desperate need, to look back at our history, figure out how you create a functional, successful local media system, local news system, so that people can get information. It can fill that void, if you will, not with misinformation or disinformation, but with something that they know and trust. That’s the issue that Bob and I wrestled with. I’ll let Bob pick up from here. But I think, to my mind, that’s the essential bridge from the history to the crisis that we’re in.
Marc Steiner: No, absolutely.
Robert McChesney: This has been a project I’ve been working on for over 20 years with John and on my own. And I think the major form of resistance that we’ve met is that any government involvement with journalism is against the American tradition, which, as we’ve shown, is bogus. Everyone would say, well, let’s just let the market work its magic combined with the internet. Eventually, people will figure out how to make money doing journalism and the problem will be solved.
We’ve had 20 years of that and we’ve had no solution. And the reason is very simple. Advertising no longer buys ads on websites. It’s not like the old days of a newspaper or a magazine, hey, I like your newspaper. I’m going to buy an ad because I want to reach your readers. Today people buy ads for demographics. They go online, and they tell Google or Facebook or AOL, or whoever, hey, this is my product. I want to reach these people. This is their demographic makeup. These are my customers, and they will find them wherever they are online. You’ll get an ad on the Target website or something. You’ll get an ad wherever you go. They will track you down.
The website itself gets very little money as a result. That’s why journalism commercially is dead online. It will never happen if it’s relying on advertising. And journalism that tries to rely only on consumer subscriptions will never work except for small niche journalism for elites or certain types of people, but not national popular journalism.
Now if you accept that, and I think the evidence there is incontrovertible at this point, then the only solution is public money. The only way you’re going to have the sort of journalism we’re talking about with reporters competing in independent newsrooms in communities around the country drawing people into public life is with public money. The trick then is how do you get public money to pay for this but not have the government control it, not have them pick the winners and losers?
Here again the post office antecedent the American history is really rich here. As John pointed out, the post office gave everyone this low, discount postage, free postage virtually. It didn’t matter what your content was. That was the genius of it. The government played no role in picking winners and losers. Everyone qualified.
In our view that’s the same approach we should take here. We should not have the government saying, this is good journalism. That’s bad journalism. Instead, what we do is set up a pool of money in every county in the country and have an election. Nonprofit groups that are qualified can compete for this money and if they win the election they get funds worth whatever percentage of the vote they got in the county’s budget. There’s a number of criteria we lay out to prevent fraud, to guarantee that the money will be used locally by people who –
John Nichols: To guarantee competition.
Robert McChesney: And it guarantees there will be a minimum of five media in every county, a minimum. If it did, it’d be five well-paid media. So that’s the principle here that we start with.
The people will select it. Now, people might pick candidates to receive this money that you and I wouldn’t like. They might pick some that we love. But that’s their choice. This is democracy. You live with what the people actually choose. That was our founders… Some of the quotes in the piece that Ben Franklin talked about, Jefferson talked about, they despised many newspapers but they never said we should censor them or get rid of them or lock people up for printing them. They said, that’s just the way the system is. The people have a right to what they do. And we hold that belief too. That should be central to this.
So we lay out the plan in the paper and it sets up a national budget allocated by the county, overseen by the post office, or the Postal Service today, returning to its historical mission to operate these elections. It should be fairly painless, relatively, to make it a functional system. Obviously things can come up that will require attention, problems you can’t anticipate in advance and we’ll learn from the experience. But we’ve laid out what I think is the blueprint for the beginning of mapping a functional system.
John Nichols: If I could just add one final thing on it, Bob and I say throughout our piece and we make it very clear that we’re open to people saying, wow, that won’t work. Here’s a better approach. We are not rigid in how we would set this up, but we are rigid in our commitment that there has to be an intervention to recreate and supercharge local media, local journalism.
We know that it’s not going to be in the form of a print newspaper in most cases. It will very likely be online. What we’re emphasizing is we believe that in every county in America there should be a newsroom with at least a few journalists and competing newsrooms with groups of journalists who are out there gathering information and telling people what’s going on. That’s where things are falling apart at this point.
If you recreate that, then yeah, you’re going to have right wingers who think that Donald Trump won the election in 2020, and you’re going to have left wingers who think that Joe Biden is a corporate hack who’s doing Wall Street’s bidding, and you’re going to have a lot of people in the middle who are going to wrestle with all these issues. That is exactly what you had at the founding, where you had literally a wide array of opinions. Not as wide as it should have been. And it’s what we had at those points where, I would argue, journalism flourished in America, where you would have…
The interesting thing about New York City, we use that just as a reference point. You could use Baltimore. You could use Washington. You could use Milwaukee. I’ll use Milwaukee as an example. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had a conservative morning paper, a liberal afternoon paper, and an all-day socialist newspaper 100 years ago, or less than that. The fact is it also had a German-language paper. It had variations on all these things. This was true across this country.
Marc Steiner: It was.
John Nichols: When you’ve got that, then all of the noise at the national level begins to dial down because people are actually getting good quality information about where they live that also brings in the national elements. Frankly, to my mind, that’s where we begin to get out of the malaise that we’re in right now.
Marc Steiner: Let me ask three quick things here that really made me start thinking after I finished your piece the other night. One is there’s some people who can look and say, look, you already have public media. You have public radio. You have public TV. That’s there. So what are you talking about? That exists. The government funds that. B is how much will this cost and where does the money come from? And C, given that there is a huge push from the right wing in America locally taking over school boards and local councils – And they’re really organized, much more than moderate left or liberals are at all in terms of their push politically on the local level – Given that, how that could affect this idea. Let’s tackle that. Let’s start with the public media –
John Nichols: Let me take A, and then let Bob take B, and then we’ll wrestle for who does C.
Marc Steiner: [laughs] Fine. Go ahead.
John Nichols: I hope we remember C by the time we get through A and B. That’s always the challenge.
John Nichols: A is we already have public media. Why do we need to do anything more? Well, we don’t have public media in America. We really have what most countries in the world would see as a tiny, little, micro experiment. We do have public television and some of it’s very, very good. And we have public radio and some of it’s very, very good. And we even have some systems that support a little bit of community radio around the country. But the amount of money that we put into public media in the United States is minuscule.
It’s laughable compared to what Germany does or what Scandinavian countries do or what Canada does or what Slovenia does. Bob and I have done the research on this and the numbers are just jaw-dropping. I think Slovenia, at one point it was like a 75:1 ratio, what they put into public media versus what we do. I’ll get some of these figures wrong, but you could just go around the world and find other countries are like 20:1 ratio, 50:1 ratio.
We don’t fund public media in this country, and we should. We should put a lot more money into it. But that’s not really what Bob and I are talking about. What Bob and I are talking about is, yeah, a supercharged public media. We want an American BBC and then some. We’d love to see all that and we’ve supported it for years. But what we also want is the genius of local media coming from competing perspectives with biases, with points of view, with ideals and ideologies, also with a commitment to the truth, hopefully, and hopefully to get into the facts. But we want that discourse.
John Nichols: What’s fallen apart in America is not necessarily the ability to get news. A lot of people can get news. But what has fallen apart is the ability to take that news and have a dialogue about it. To say, oh, this is your point of view. Here’s my point of view. Oh, wow, something you’re saying there makes sense to me. Maybe we can work this through. To our view, that happens best at the local level.
What you want to do is to kind of… We’re not nostalgic. We’re talking about something that hopefully will be better than anything we had in the past. But you want to have a local media system where you have the full diversity of the community represented, where you have all the character of the community represented, and where you have the needs of that community for a dialogue met. We don’t think that just supercharging public media is going to do that. We think there has to be much more than that.
Again, here I am in my position of throwing off to Bob because I very sneakily here took the easy part. Bob will now take the money part and tell you how it’s done.
Robert McChesney: Well, the devil is in the details and in the budget both. The question of how much money it takes, how much this budget should be, is really central. It’s got to have sufficient money to really get the job done and done well.
The guidance you get comes from two or three different places that are very important. First of all you look at the historical record, and what you do is you look at the percentage of GDP accounted for by daily newspaper revenues. What you find is that pretty much throughout the 20th century until the 1960s, 1% of the GDP was represented by revenues of daily newspapers. I don’t think anyone alive today fully appreciates what an enormous institution daily newspapers were in American life through the middle of the 20th century. 1% of GDP is serious, serious money. That today would account for roughly $235 billion if we had the similar ratio. That’d be a serious newspaper industry. The revenues for the newspaper industry this year will be probably $18 billion, to give a sense of the difference, what we’ve lost.
Robert McChesney: What happened is that that percentage of 1% of GDP declined gradually from the 1960s until the end of the century to down a little over six tenths of a percent, which was still enormous. Then with the rise of social media and the internet, it’s collapsed. Now it’s under one tenth of 1%. So clearly we’ve got to raise that. Under one tenth of 1% of GDP is not enough.
It’s worth noting that historically, we looked at what the value of government subsidies of journalism was in the 19th century. We looked at the government reports from the 1840s and crunched the numbers with statisticians and historians and we determined that 0.21% of the GDP in the United States in the 1840s was given to government subsidies for journalism. 0.21%, post office and other things. That would amount in today’s GDP to a $46 billion subsidy. $46 billion was the equivalent in the 1840s by the US government. That’s the American history, a lot of money being spent traditionally. So we’re thinking big numbers.
The other side of the coin is to look internationally. Internationally, if you look at the list of the most democratic nations in the world, like in The Economist magazine’s Democracy Index, John has mentioned them, they’re the usual suspects: Canada, Norway, Sweden, Germany. These countries, all of them, they’re considered the most democratic in the world by traditional political science criteria. They all spend the most on public media and supporting diverse journalism. The governments do. It says basically the most democratic countries are spending the most.
The United States is ranked now, I think, 24th or 25th on The Economist’s list. We’re down in the flawed democracy category next to Hungary, places like that. We’re in a whole different league now. The countries that are spending the most are the most democratic.
Then the flip side of that is there’s a group called Reporters Without Borders and they assess every country in the world, they rank how critical the news media are in those countries, how much they can dig and get away without being harassed by the government. They rank every country on that. The democracies, the Norways and the Germanys and the Swedens and Japans, the countries that have the highest-rated countries for free press are also the same countries that spend the most. Their governments spend the most on media, on journalism. They don’t contradict each other, they correspond.
The moral of the story is that a democracy, a genuine democracy with the rule of law, can have public funding of journalism and have an enhanced democracy, not undermine it, just the opposite of the conventional wisdom that in this country alone is pervasive. No other democratic country would even take that seriously.
So how much money is it? How much do we need? The good news for us is the internet and the digital revolution cuts costs dramatically. We don’t need distribution arms. We don’t need advertising salespeople anymore. We don’t need that whole crew of non-journalism-related activities that you have. We don’t need business offices now trying to raise money here or there. The costs go down dramatically. We don’t need hundreds of billions of dollars to get the job done but we do need tens of billions of dollars. If we look at the amount that Norway spends to give it the best media system in the world, by many accounts, certainly the most by a thriving democracy, it spends per capita what would be roughly $35 billion a year by American terms.
So what we did is we said, why don’t we set the budget for this Local Journalism Initiative at a percentage of the GDP so it’ll always be locked in at that figure. As the economy grows, as you have inflation, as the population grows, it automatically adjusts because the GDP reflects that. Then you don’t have to debate it every year, and people can plan ahead accordingly. So the number we picked was 0.15 of 1%, which is actually very low by historical standards, but because you get rid of all these other costs, these extraneous costs with digital technologies and by being nonprofit, all that money goes directly to content production, to journalism.
That’s where we came down. Now, that would be a budget of roughly $34 billion a year right now, 0.15%. People go, oh, that’s horrible. How can you possibly spend that much money on journalism? Then you say, well, let’s take a look at the budget here. Where is the money going?
Recall that Jefferson, in his famous 1787 letter announcing the importance of the press, said having a press system is the “best army to protect the republic. I think the events around us today that we’ve been talking about that led to Jan. 6 make that abundantly clear. Your national security depends on having an informed citizenry. If you don’t have that, you’ve lost the battle already. It’s your best army. So $34 billion compared to, what, a 700-plus billion-dollar military budget does not seem like that much to me offhand, does not seem like it’s screwing up the priorities of the country at all. Instead, it’s really reinforcing the priorities. So that’s where we are on that.
Now, there’s one fringe benefit I’d like to add, Marc.
Marc Steiner: Sure. Please.
Robert McChesney: John mentioned that we want to do… The result here isn’t just to recreate what we had in the past. It’s really to do something even better. One area where this will be, I think, a revolutionary development will be in the matter of racial justice. Because basically in communities like most great American cities: Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis in those counties, where African Americans account for 20% to 40% of the population depending on the county, they’re going to have 20% or 40% of the votes. There is going to be viable media serving people of color in these communities that will be by them, for them, it will be controlled by them. It will be resources unimaginable before in American history, and it’ll be part of the process of democratizing the society, hopefully in a way that’s long overdue.
John Nichols: If I can just come off what Bob just said there, one final element just on the area Bob was talking about. Bob was talking about the big cities. This becomes especially vital in rural America. People lose sight of the fact that 25% of African Americans live in rural counties. Roughly half of Native Americans live in rural counties. The boom populations in rural counties, the highest growth populations in rural counties, are Asian Americans and Latinx people. As a result, we see that there’s a huge number of people out in rural America in smaller towns and smaller counties, with very, very little media, who have very few opportunities to create a system by which they can really communicate. This has tremendous potential to open up the dialogue across the whole country, not just in the big cities, but in small towns and in rural counties.
I think one of the assumptions is, yeah, a lot of this money that would be distributed via counties across the country or at the county level will create conservative media because so many of the counties in this country, they voted for Trump, they’re conservative. It’s true, and that’s fine. It’s fine to have media there that reflects that. But you would also begin to reflect the full diversity of rural America. And, I would argue, great potential that we have a much more realistic politics in this country. We’ll still have conservatives and liberals, but we will have a lot of people rooted in their own place, telling their own story, beginning to open up a much more small-D democratic discourse than what we have. We worry so much about Washington, and that’s fine and that’s good. We worry far too little about the quality of our small-D democratic life in small towns, small cities, and bigger cities across America. That’s what we think our plan would recreate.
Marc Steiner: This has been a really interesting discussion. I’m going to drop the last comment I made because I think that the discussion that has to happen from here is how you get this on the drawing board given what’s happening in Congress now and how Build Back Better has been stymied in some ways. Not in some ways. It’s been stymied for the moment. And the journalism initiative in that, we’ll see if that even goes forward.
But the question is how you get this conversation moving and going in the broader parts of America to understand what it means and to really tie the future of democracy, no matter whether you are right, left, middle, center, whoever you are, is tied to a free press and tied to a robust press. I think that’s part of the argument you all are making. That’s essential to the argument you all are making, and I think that that is what’s critical here.
John Nichols: Well, and Marc, you’re starting it. Look, we wrote this paper, not in a sense of despair, but in a sense of deep concern, because we thought that the dialogue in the United States was not where it needed to be. We knew that this question of recreating local journalism and of really creating a new local journalism that’s better than what we had in the past had to be a part of any discussion about how to deal with the threats to democracy, to all the broader issues that we’re talking about. So we wrote it from that perspective.
To our delight, Columbia Journalism Review decided to platform it, to take a major portion of this and to pick it up as part of their dialogue about the future of journalism. Free Press, the group that we’ve been involved with, has taken it and put it on there in a much broader form. What we’ve found is people across the country have picked up on it. There are people who are bouncing this proposal, these ideas that we put forward, around, some disagreeing, some adding their own elements to it. But something is happening here.
We’re talking with you today. We’ll talk with other people as we go forward. Most importantly, we’re talking to members of Congress. Not always convincing every one of them, but working with them to try and say, hey, here’s an idea. One of the things that we really desperately want to do is break through the narrow discussion and get us into that bigger discussion. You don’t always get rewards for that. People don’t always say, oh, yeah, thanks for making me have to think about more than I wanted to think about.
The fact of the matter is there have been a lot of discussions in Congress about how to save journalism in America. But those discussions have largely been about picayune, tiny amounts of money, small, small allocations of money rather than the large amounts that are needed. Also, they’ve tended to funnel that money through existing media organizations rather than looking for ways to help people of color, people in rural, suburban, urban areas across this country to create media that reflects their experience.
What we think is… What we hope is that we can open up that much bigger dialogue. We’re not against moving money to help keep journalists on the job now, but what we are in favor of is a dialogue about how to go beyond just keeping journalists employed to a dialogue about how to create a journalism, how create a media in this country that actually sustains dialogue at the local, state, and national level. And by sustaining that dialogue, ultimately sustains democracy.
Robert McChesney: I would only add to that that we published a piece in Columbia Journalism Review a month ago, roughly, and for two or three years before that, I’d been giving talks or lectures on this issue, mostly on Zoom, to a whole different range of audiences. Local news constantly came up in people’s frustration, whatever their political viewpoints, and the fact that no one was able to replace what we’d lost.
What was striking was when I’d go into this idea that we’re floating here, the Local Journalism Initiative, earlier variations of it, it was almost uniform enthusiasm. I was struck by that. Once people listened to it and thought about it, they said, yeah, that would probably be exactly what we need. So we knew it was something that would resonate if you could get away from the labels that are done nationally, that’s a liberal idea, conservative idea, and just talk about the policy itself. We knew it was something that people would like to talk about, at the very least.
What we were hoping was that, after the presidential election when there would be a huge stimulus package, we were hoping that maybe this issue could get put in there as something necessary for the infrastructure of our democracy. We weren’t lucky enough to get there because that came a little too fast for us, but I think we need to get this issue in play for Congress and for politicians soon, because we don’t really have a lot of time to lose on this issue, like any other.
Marc Steiner: Bob McChesney, John Nichols, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you both. I just think that you two should start The Bob and John Show.
John Nichols: We’ve been doing it for 20 years.
Marc Steiner: I know! Well, thank you both so much for being with us today. This is a really important discussion, and I think your initiative is critically important to the future. I hope we can do everything we can to continue the dialogue and to make America hear what you’re saying. Thank you both so much for your work and for joining us today.
John Nichols: Thank you.
Robert McChesney: Thank you very much, Marc.
Marc Steiner: I want to first thank Cameron Granadino for managing and editing this session and our audio editor Stephen Frank for making all this work. If you want to reach me, please just write to me at email@example.com, and I’ll get right back to you. For The Real News and everyone here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.