Sixty-nine years ago, our free press system – the foundation of America’s democracy – was strong, stable and robust.

As described by noted journalist Walter Lippmann in 1950:

“… the secret of a truly free press is it should consist of many newspapers, decentralized in their ownership and their management, and dependent for their support upon the communities where they are written, where they are edited and where they are read.”

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote that if he had to:

“… decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Our Founding Fathers recognized that in all cultures and societies, it was the wealthy and powerful who understood the value of news and information. Consequently, they sought control and selectively withheld information from the population. Our Founders also recognized the average citizen could not afford, nor was willing to pay for, news and information. In their brilliance, they understood it would take government protection and subsidization to ensure the creation of a robust press free from government interference and control by the rich and powerful. So, they established two principles that were, and continue to be, essential for a viable free press and a sustainable democracy.

  • They created the First Amendment to protect the peoples’ press from the peoples’ new government.1
  • They created the United States Post Office to ensure the low-cost, ubiquitous distribution of newspapers and periodicals. They established postmasters, whom they subsidized as publishers in a variety of ways.

Thus was established the new government’s protect and subsidize role to ensure a vibrant press and enduring democracy.

Closely related was their stroke of brilliance in 1785 when they passed the Land Ordinance. This ordinance established a plot for a common school in all new townships. By the mid-1890s, America became the world’s most literate country.


Today would be Walter Lippmann and Thomas Jefferson’s worst nightmare: The demise of our once robust free press system and the threat to the very survival of our democracy.

History tells us that few democracies survive beyond 200 years, and almost all democracies that die, die from within – not from without.

American democracy is at risk.

The vast majority of what had been our free press system – content creators and content distributors – is in the hands of non-democratic business oligarchies. Our elections and our civil discourse are being attacked and undermined by hostile foreign governments externally. Internally, they are threatened by the vast fault lines that now divide America. Fault lines enabled and exacerbated by the demise of our free press system.

Young people no longer believe they will have a better life than their parents. Polls are increasingly showing they question whether our democracy is the best form of government and whether capitalism is the best form for an economy.

There are still journalism schools, foundations, research organizations and activist groups across America all doing great work or targeted lobbying on issues such as net neutrality.

However, no singular independent organization is focused on how the Founding Fathers’ vision and actions resulted in the marvelous system of regional and local newspapers that Walter Lippmann eulogized in 1950. Nor has there been a concentrated examination of what factors caused the decline of our free and independent press from 1950 to today’s crisis of existence.


Only by knowing the past – good and bad – can we understand what is necessary to recreate the Founders’ dream, re-establish a modern-day version of the 1950 free press and save our democracy.

As one of the few remaining local, independent, mission-based metro newspapers in the country, The Seattle Times is undertaking a unique public-service initiative with the goal to inspire its local community to become the epicenter of free press reform, and in turn inspire the nation.

The ultimate goal is to re-establish America’s free press in a modern era by doing the following:

  • Re-establish the Founders’ principles of protection, subsidization and universal access.
  • Reform newspaper and media ownership by creating laws and rules that will enable local communities across Washington state and the nation to rebuild trusted local stewardship.
  • Reform the internet for the public good by redirecting the large tech platforms’ excessive control of internet advertising revenue to newspapers and other trusted news sources. And, pursue other technology solutions to enable newspapers to profit from their journalism.

Survival of our country’s free press is a crisis which requires great urgency. Without reform and re-creation of a modern free press system, it is hard to envision our democracy surviving for another decade. Indeed, if significant progress isn’t achieved in the next 12 to 24 months it will likely be too late.

For the public: What can you do?

  • Follow the soon to launch Seattle Times Free Press Voice.
  • Educate your family and friends about the crisis and the urgency of reform.
  • Let your public officials know you expect them to support and lead in turning solutions into law and action.
  • Continue or start to subscribe to your local newspapers’ printed and digital products.

1Ratified by the States, September 1789