Introduction: Can Journalism Be Saved?

It will take government action to rescue a struggling but vital industry.

This story is part of a package exploring how to rescue and revitalize journalism. Read the rest of the pieces here. And, if you enjoy what you’re reading, please consider making a donation—we’re a nonprofit media organization and rely on the support of our readers.

The economic collapse of journalism in America is hard to exaggerate. Between 2004 and the end of 2019, about 2,100 newspapers—one in four—closed, according to a University of North Carolina study. While several hundred digital-only news sites sprung up during that period, they were far too few and small to fill the growing void. And that was before the pandemic decimated news outlets even further.

The vibrancy of cable news networks and a few national publications—some, such as The Washington Post and The Atlantic, owned by billionaires—masks the broader catastrophe. The damage ranges from the shutting-down of quality national magazines like Governing and Pacific Standard to large layoffs at online outlets like BuzzFeed and VICE. But the greatest shrinkage is happening at the local level, among large metropolitan dailies, neighborhood and small-town weeklies, and outlets that have long covered Black, Hispanic, and other minority and ethnic communities. As of last year, two-thirds of counties in America lacked a local daily newspaper. Half had only one newspaper, often just a weekly. And more than 200—mostly poor, rural counties—had none at all. Those news outlets that remain are often what are referred to as ghost papers, with few staff and little local reporting. (Local TV news has declined far less, but tends to cover stories that newspapers originate, and with less depth.)

It is equally hard to exaggerate how destructive this decline has been to the fabric and functioning of American democracy. One study found that in communities where newspapers close and there are no reporters keeping an eye on the decisions of local officials, municipal government wages, deficits, and borrowing costs rise. Local news outlets tend to be far more trusted by readers on both sides of the political aisle than national publications. When they disappear, citizens turn to national news sources, often partisan ones, or rely on social media for information. The result is more party-line voting and small-town residents mobilizing against mythical antifa infiltrations. Indeed, as this magazine has reported, the rise of authoritarian politics in America correlates to an alarming degree with the waning of local news.

The decline of the journalism business is not being driven by a lack of interest in the news, which is robust, but by the collapse of the advertising-based model that has traditionally paid for news gathering. The problem began two decades ago, when papers started losing classified ads to digital sites like Craigslist and eBay. To compete, print outlets built extensive web operations to tap the growing digital advertising market—only to see that market cornered by two monopolistic tech platforms. By 2018, Google and Facebook were sucking up 58 percent of all digital advertising revenues at the national level, and 77 percent in local markets, according to The Wall Street Journal.

While the problem of journalism’s economic decline, and its eroding effects on democracy, has been well documented, surprisingly little work has been done to sleuth out practical solutions—especially by journalists, who, one would think, would have a strong professional incentive to do so. (Half of all newspaper jobs have disappeared since 2008, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, about the same rate of decline as in textile manufacturing.) Journalists, however, are understandably hesitant to consider fixes that might involve the use of government resources or power when it’s their job to hold the government accountable. 

The Washington Monthly is not so reluctant. In this issue, we identify and describe several ways government can be used to reinvigorate the economics of journalism without jeopardizing editorial independence—just as the Founding Fathers did when they created a postal system that subsidized the spread of newspapers in the first century of U.S. history. Steven Waldman makes the case that today, every American should receive a refundable tax credit for a local news subscription, membership, or donation to build a new era of what he calls “civic news.” Phillip Longman argues that journalism’s advertising-based business model can be revived using a combination of tougher privacy and anti-discrimination laws and a return to traditional standards of antitrust enforcement. 

These policy changes would not only recharge traditional news enterprises, they would also supercharge and protect the kinds of innovative new models we profile in this package. Anne Kim shows how journalists of color are diversifying media by forming their own outlets. Matt Connolly reports on promising early experiments with cooperatively owned business models for digital news media. And Grace Gedye investigates efforts by firms like Spotify to corner the podcasting market, one of the few product lines that bring in growing advertising dollars for independent media outlets. 

Any hope of reinforcing our wobbly democracy will require a free and energetic press. But for that to happen, all of us, including members of the fourth estate, will need to get over our reluctance to consider carefully using the power of democratic government to solve the press’s plight.

The Washington Monthly would like to thank Knight Foundation for sponsoring this special issue.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.