This week is The Seattle Times’ 124th birthday. To my knowledge, we are now the second-oldest regional newspaper in the country with local stewardship. Every year on our birthday, I send a community message sharing the state of your Seattle Times to celebrate the unique independence, innovation and community service of our company and our subscribers, community journalism funders, strategic partners, advertisers and congressional delegation. Because of your support and the Blethen family’s five generations of unwavering commitment to public service, The Seattle Times has become a role model and a beacon of light for the survival of our nation’s local free press system.
This system is in peril of imminent collapse, which would exacerbate the current civil discord across the country and jeopardize democracy and freedom as we know them. As we face the overlapping crises of health, economy and the free press amid a seminal election, my message this year is different. It is a report on the fragile state of our nation’s local free press system and what we can do to save it if we are willing to act now.
My entire post-college work life has been devoted to the journalism and public service of The Seattle Times, supporting family businesses and fighting against non-local newspaper control, media consolidation and financialization.
Our Founding Fathers created a free press as the foundation for our 250-year experiment in democracy.
It has supported the best democracy and economy in the world, at least until now. Our local free press is now in its most fragile condition ever, as is our economy.
We are a frightened and divided nation. Societal fault lines are wider than they have ever been. Egregious inequities in education, health care and employment are rife. Our capitalistic economic system has been co-opted by Wall Street at the expense of Main Street and healthy local economies. Wealth has been dangerously concentrated and left many Americans with little hope of working hard and building a secure life and family.
Capitalism is the most productive economic system the world has ever seen. No alternative comes close. In their wisdom, our founders understood that capitalism only works for the masses with strong checks and balances. Today’s free press and economic crises are the result of a serious erosion of checks and balances at least three decades in the making. They are also the failure of Congress and our regulatory agencies to regulate the internet for public good rather than allow Facebook and Google to evolve into secretive, monopolistic and dangerous fiefdoms.
We will never rebuild national cohesion and reduce inequities without a renewal of egalitarian checks and balances out of both the White House and Congress, relying on these three critical issues:
- Addressing the dysfunctional control of our capitalism and wealth by far too few individuals and avaricious corporations.
- Saving the foundation of our endangered free press – the national system of locally owned, locally accountable newspapers, which has until recent years enabled national consciousness, energized civic engagement and fostered vibrant communities.
- Transforming the internet into a powerful public service instrument, beginning with reform of Facebook and Google to end their monopolistic practices, privacy abuses and the practices which undermine our elections and legitimate civic dialogue, including preventing local media from profiting and competing in the digital advertising space they have monopolized.
The loss of our nation’s local free press system has been an evolving disaster more than 50 years in the making. It is part of the long-term Wall Street destruction of Main Street across the county, the accumulation and consolidation of almost every line of business into short-term investment portfolios with the singular goal of maximizing short-term profits for the absentee overlords, and without concern for the devastating impact on local communities and local employees.
While uncontrolled consolidation has undermined local economic vitality overall, the most severe blow is loss of locally owned newspapers. Most newspapers in the United States are now controlled by absentee financial opportunists, damaging local communities and civic engagement and deepening social fault lines by disinvesting in the quality and volume of local journalism.
Fifty years ago, most Washington state newspapers were multigenerational family stewardships deeply connected to their communities. Today our state has only three local family daily stewardships left: the Campbell family in Vancouver, Wash.; the Cowles family in Spokane and The Seattle Times. All are multigenerational families deeply committed to preserving a strong local free press in their communities.
At least five of Washington’s daily papers are now “ghost newspapers” – ultra-thin newspapers with almost no local news and websites of miserable design and limited substantial content. Four are about to be acquired out of bankruptcy by a hedge fund; do not expect any investment or improvement.
Among the top 50 regional metro newspapers, an astonishing 84% are no longer locally owned. The Seattle Times is one of the rare exceptions.
The critical question today is whether it is too late to save our free press system and begin a renaissance of civic engagement and equal opportunity. The answer is no, it is not too late. But the window is closing. We must act now to save what is left of the beleaguered system and begin the rebuild and reform process. Congress has the opportunity to take bold action now as part of the COVID package and begin the process to rebuild and reform.
STOP THE BLEEDING
- Pass the bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act H.R. 7640, sponsored by Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz. Local newspaper journalists are essential workers critical to getting us through the health and economic crises, as well as the fall elections. Just when we need local news the most, the COVID crisis has accelerated newsroom layoffs and severely reduced critical local coverage. Journalism job loss slowed somewhat due to the previous congressional pandemic relief programs, but is now poised to take off unless Congress passes this critical legislation. The Act would temporarily preserve most local newspaper journalism jobs and give the surviving local papers, at least temporally, a stable runway while the business model evolves, and longer-term congressional action and regulatory reform play out.
- Senate retention of the House-passed Employee Retention Tax Credit in the HEROES ACT, sponsored by Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash. This shorter-term program would significantly help shore up local newsroom employment at least through the end of 2020, during which time local engagement and information is essential for health and economic coverage and the fall elections.
- A strong bipartisan “Local Newsroom Grants” program may be introduced in the Senate before the summer recess. This legislation would provide longer-term support for local newsrooms and be a critical piece in stabilizing those newsrooms and rebuilding local community-based stewardships.
RECREATE THE LOCAL FREE PRESS “SUBSIDY”
Our Founding Fathers saw that the government and the rich and powerful understand the value of information and will always seek to control it. Our founders knew an egalitarian democracy requires robust news and information to be widespread and accessible to all. They created the U.S. Postal Service to ensure broad distribution of newspapers and periodicals, and paid postmasters, like Benjamin Franklin, to also be publishers. They understood that the birth of American democracy depended on this subsidy. Today, we must understand that the survival of that democracy still depends on a “subsidy” to save our local free press system.
We must replicate a subsidy in a way that insulates local newspapers from government manipulation. One example could be a Free Press Super Fund, funded by a fee on the major internet platforms.
The bipartisan free press Grants program could potentially be a mechanism for fair and equitable distribution. It may not be a permanent solution, but it could keep the system going for a few years while we reform newspaper ownership and the internet to maximize the public good.
REFORM THE INTERNET FOR PUBLIC GOOD, PRIVACY AND THE FUTURE OF OUR FREE PRESS
The internet was never intended to become the cabal of a handful of dominant, monopolistic, secretive and manipulative platforms. There are important and serious processes in place to reform the internet. A primary focus is on Facebook and Google, whose abuse of excessive power, monopolization of digital advertising and anti-competitive search and ad technology are the reasons newspapers can’t profit from their own content and maintain healthy digital advertising revenues.
The rise of the internet with no public service or antitrust obligations was one of the most damaging public policy mistakes in our lifetimes. (Full disclosure: The Seattle Times editorial voice naively supported this misguided policy. We did not foresee the abuses and damage Facebook and Google would bring.)
REFORM NEWSPAPER OWNERSHIP
Unfettered newspaper and media consolidation, financialization and disinvestment has brought our local free press system to its knees. This loss of localism and disinvestment in journalism began slowly about 50 years ago and has accelerated every decade into today’s crisis.
Rules supporting local ownership and local competition were eliminated. Reform would mean new rules favoring localism and new forms of local ownerships, including minority groups and women, as well as once-traditional local family stewardships.
My great-grandfather Alden Blethen founded The Seattle Times in 1896. In 1913, he wrote to his sons:
“Congratulations on your part in upbuilding of this great newspaper. Hope you echo my desire that one hundred years from hence The Seattle Times may be a more powerful newspaper than today and be published among five million people, and in the control of your great-great grandsons.”
For 100 years out, Alden was very prescient if not entirely accurate.
In 1913, Greater Seattle had about 240,000 people. Today it has about 3.9 million. But he was right on about The Seattle Times remaining in control of his heirs. His great-grandsons have been in control since 1985, and they are overseeing the multiyear process of control being passed to Alden’s great-great-grandsons and great-great-granddaughters.
We know Alden would be very proud of his sons, great-grandsons and great-great-grandchildren and their 105 years of Seattle Times stewardship as a community treasure. He would marvel at this special community we all call home, especially its egalitarian embrace and support of a free press.
Our family is optimistic we are in the dark before the dawn – that, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, we are on the verge of a renewal of our free press system and civic vitality. On behalf of myself, my 4th-generation cousins Will and John Blethen, and, posthumously, our 4th-generation cousins Bob and Buster, we thank you for your support and pledge to you that we will never give up Alden’s hope for a “powerful” local newspaper.
ACT NOW! SPEAK UP
Congress will respond if our voices are loud and persistent.
Washington state’s delegation is probably the most free press-savvy and active in the country. Find your legislator at https://app.leg.wa.gov/districtfinder and contact them to express your support for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act H.R. 7640, newspaper reform and the free press in our community.