” … There is, I believe, a fundamental reason why the American press is strong enough to remain free. That reason is that the American newspapers, large and small, and without exception, belong to a town, a city, at the most to a region.”
— Walter Lippmann, 1950, Iowa State Press Association
America’s free-press system is fast failing, and we must act now if we are to save it and preserve democracy.
The pandemic threatens the survival of remaining local newspapers across the nation. They are essential to provide critical news, inform voters and hold government accountable. They will be needed more than ever as America rebuilds, re-connects and restores communities.
We must do three things quickly:
• Re-establish the founding fathers’ foundation of protection, subsidization and universal access for the free press.
• Reform newspaper ownership rules to resurrect and enable local ownership, and prevent consolidation and absentee control.
• Reform the internet for the public good. Large platforms (such as Facebook and Google) have excessive control of internet advertising revenue as they poach local news to draw audience. Redirect revenues to local newspapers and other trusted local news sources that create the content. Pursue other technology policy solutions to enable newspapers to profit from their content and journalism.
How serious is the crisis? Across all media, newsroom employment dropped 25% — 28,000 jobs — from 2008 to 2018, according to Pew Research.
Newspaper newsroom jobs fell by half during that period, and at least 2,100 newspapers have failed since 2004, mostly weeklies.
With the dramatic loss of advertising revenue driven by our health and economic crises, daily newspaper death is moving up the food chain, from weeklies to more small and mid-size dailies. New announcements of layoffs, furloughs and fewer publishing days are rampant. One striking example: The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s newsroom plunged from 36 to four journalists this month.
Congress must continue to provide stimulus and grants targeted at preserving the newsroom employment of local newspapers across America. It is imperative that local communities keep their trusted local news and information providers alive during the health crisis and subsequent economic crisis.
Municipalities will be under intense pressure to maintain services and optimize billions of federal recovery dollars. The situation begs for accountability the free press provides.
Communities that lose local newspapers, and government scrutiny and accountability they provide, see higher borrowing costs and less efficiency, according to a 2018 study by professors at the universities of Illinois and Notre Dame.
Specific ideas to preserve local newspaper jobs are being discussed by industry leaders and elected representatives, and many in Congress are beginning to take interest. It is critically important that the best ideas are the ones embraced and that saving our local free press is a bipartisan effort.
We urge Congress to act quickly and effectively to stanch the growing loss of local newspaper journalists and prevent the failure of as many papers as possible. As proposals appear, we will share them on these pages with an assessment of their effectiveness.
We urge everyone to let our Congressional delegation know you support these bipartisan actions to save our local newspaper system and protect our democracy and self governance.