Dear Seattle Times Readers,

In my Seattle Times 125th anniversary letter in August, I shared that there would be three parts to my message this year:

  1. August focused on the national opportunity to save our local free press system and our democracy.
  2. September focused on The Seattle Times’ role as our community’s storyteller and town square.
  3. Today, I share an update on the remarkable progress of the “Save the Local Free Press” movement. This progress is fragile, but promises to help stabilize the system, begin to grow back the 40,000 lost local journalism jobs and begin freeing “ghost” newspapers from their absentee overlords, returning them to local control and vitality.

An additional message will soon share insights into the Blethen family’s 125-year stewardship of The Seattle Times, as well as our 50-year stewardship of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and 30-year stewardship of the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Local Free Press Stewardship

It has taken several years to remind the public and Congress that our Founding Fathers created the local free press system as the essential platform for our democratic experiment. The founders understood that the rich and powerful appreciated the value of information and would always seek to control it, and that a democracy could not develop without the ubiquitous availability of news and a literate citizenry. Their solution was brilliant:

THE FIRST AMENDMENT to protect citizens’ free speech from the government they were creating.

THE SUBSIDY to provide ubiquitous distribution of information by creating the post office, subsidizing publishers’ distribution costs and

making some of them postmasters. LITERACY, through a heavy investment in common schools and public education.

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The free press is the only business mentioned in and protected by our Constitution. It was never intended to be a Wall Street bauble milked for short-term gain and then cast aside. It was intended to be a national system of locally independent newspapers that served to bind the citizens of each unique community to our new self-government experiment. This localism created trust, good local self-government and a national consciousness.

In our era of mistrust and suspicion, it might surprise you that local newspapers (print and digital) are regarded as the most trusted news and information source by a majority of Americans. This is particularly ironic since so many are now ghost newspapers with decimated staffs, tiny news holes and almost no quality local news, as they are controlled by absentee short-term financial profiteers.

The fragility of our local free press system is one of the two primary reasons we are in a national crisis and have become a nation riven by the worst civil discord and deepest societal fault lines since the Civil War – a crisis driven by the disinvestment in our once-vaunted national local newspaper system.

During the last 25 years, the loss of local stewardship and responsible local journalism has steadily accelerated. Since the quickest way to increase short-term profits is to cut news staff and eliminate robust reporting, local newsrooms have been decimated. News deserts and ghost newspapers are fast becoming the norm.

To save our democracy, we must do three things with urgency:

REBUILD OUR LOCAL NEWSPAPER NEWSROOMS: Add back the 44,000 local newsroom jobs lost in the last 10 years.

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REPLACE ABSENTEE FINANCIAL MERCENARIES: Prevent further absentee consolidation.

REBUILD LOCAL STEWARDSHIPS:

  • Pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act in the short term.
  • Develop a replacement for the lost United States Post Office subsidy for the long term.
  • Create incentives for new local stewardship where news deserts and ghost newspapers now exist.
  • End the Google and Facebook digital advertising monopoly.  
  • Require Google and Facebook to pay for the newspaper content they use  

Not long ago, Washington state was a bastion of local newspaper stewardship. Today a majority of our daily newspapers are absentee-owned ghost papers. Without strong local newspaper stewardship, many of our communities are beginning to drift and lose connection. Without strong local content, our communities with news deserts and served by ghost newspapers are become feeding grounds for the fake news, misinformation and civil discord spewed by social media and Fox News.

Big Tech and social media reform

The second primary reason for the potential collapse of our democratic experiment is the monopolistic behavior of Big Tech, both their egregiously irresponsible management of social media and their illegal digital advertising monopolization of newspapers’ primary funding source for journalism.

The combination of absentee newspaper owners’ disinvestment in good local journalism and Big Tech’s advertising monopoly and social media abuses has created a national crisis for the future of our democracy. Reform of Facebook and Google are essential so newspapers can compete in a fair marketplace. Reform of social media abuses by Google and Facebook are essential to return us to being a civil and safe society.

Local Journalism Sustainability Act

The most promising first step in halting the newsroom carnage is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA). Like most legislation, it isn’t perfect, but if passed it could become the foundation for paving the way to restoring our fragile local newspaper system, rebuilding trust and reducing social discord.

Full disclosure: The Seattle Times has played a key role in creating awareness and helping craft the legislation. Our state is fortunate to have what we believe is the nation’s most free-press-literate delegation in the country. Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has been center stage in developing the concepts in the LJSA. Our Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse is one of the original co-sponsors of this bi-partisan legislation. Other especially helpful delegation members include Rep. Suzan DelBene (D), vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee; former Rep. Dave Reichert (R); Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R); and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D).

Sen. Cantwell and Rep. Jayapal are key leaders in the growing congressional effort to reform Facebook and Google. Washington’s senior senator, Patty Murray (D), was responsible for passage of the Community Newspaper Act, a pension liability stretch-out for private family newspapers, passed in December 2019. This literally saved more than 20 local, family-owned newspapers across the country. Sen. Cantwell, Reps. DelBene and McMorris Rogers and former Rep. Reichert were also champions.

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Next steps

Going forward and building momentum, the critical steps to restoring our once vibrant and trusted local newspaper system and saving our democracy are:

  • Pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
  • Develop a permanent subsidy to replace the lost postal subsidy our founders created.
  • Severely limit absentee newspaper ownership in the future.
  • Break up Big Tech marketplace abuse and monopolistic practices.
  • Hold Big Tech accountable for fake news, misinformation and irresponsible social media.
  • Create incentives for new local stewardships to replace the absentee short-term investors.

Journalism ecosystem

All communities have a journalism and news ecosystem that needs to be nurtured. The key to a strong ecosystem is a strong local newspaper. Academic studies have verified that a local newspaper produces more than 60% of a community’s original reporting. Local newspapers produce more local reporting than TV, radio and online outlets combined. In a strong local news ecosystem, smaller organizations amplify and sometimes expand upon original newspaper content and have specific and important market segments often based on ethnicity.

The bottom line: First and foremost, save and nurture the daily newspaper as the ecosystem foundation, but don’t forget these ecosystem niche products.

On behalf of the Blethen family and our Seattle Times family, thank you for supporting the free press. We could not succeed without you.

Frank A. Blethen
Publisher, The Seattle Times