American democracy is facing twin threats: the pollution of citizens’ information streams by bad actors and the demolition of a well-designed free press system that was once the envy of free people the world over.
The Seattle Times is responding with its Save The Free Press initiative, the brainchild of Publisher Frank Blethen the great-great grandson of founder Alden J. Blethen.
“Our self-governing democracy cannot survive without a national system of vibrant local newspapers,” Blethen said. “For four decades, absentee financial consolidators stripped the life out of most local newsrooms, leaving information voids and losing the critical trust which was once built on the backs of strong local and regional newspapers.
“People trust their community newspapers, which are part of the fabric of their daily lives. Unfortunately there are few left.”
Enabled by Google and Facebook, information pollution has exploded as local news outlets dedicated to fact-seeking and community service increasingly have been hollowed out by the tech platforms’ monopolistic business practices.
At the same time, Congress and the presidency have loosened federal antitrust and libel laws to serve the ends of speculators buying up news media companies and of social media billionaires. The result?
- Half as many journalists keep eyes on local government as did 25 years ago.
- Statehouse and congressional reporting teams eliminated.
- The public square is flooded with alternate realities.
- A perverse incentive system by which social media billionaires profit as conduits for the pumping out of propaganda, advertising posing as news and malicious misinformation.
To repair the free press system, we need fewer hedge fund managers slashing newsrooms, tougher restrictions on social media and more locally owned news outlets that are responsive to local needs.
Our Free Press team will report on the problems, advocate for policy changes and partner with other organizations seeking local and national solutions.
On our policy agenda: Remove obstacles to local ownership of newspapers and create incentives to rebuild the free press system, reforming laws and regulations that benefit only the biggest players.
We also want to be a resource for other free press advocates and communities.
While The Times has learned to survive disruption of its old business model, there are fewer American cities served by a newsroom with the resources to serve as the public’s eyes and ears and stand up for the public interest.
Last week, for example, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer announced layoffs that leave it with 33 journalists. Twenty years ago, there were 200 in that newsroom.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Seattle Times, locally owned and dedicated to service, puts at your service 150 journalists. Central to this project is our plan to share with others the lessons learned here. The First Amendment and certain subsidies for newspaper delivery were intended to make a free press possible, not profitable, and we hope to reinvigorate that system.
“It is late but if we act now, we can rebuild a modern trusted daily newspaper system based on 1) ownership reform and 2) internet reform,” Blethen said. “We employ the founding fathers’ simple but elegant principles of protect and subsidize.”
Make no mistake. It is a Free Press System, carefully designed by the Constitution’s brilliant engineers. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington bellyached about the press, but understood the simple fact that daylight is the best disinfectant of corruption and that means scrutiny by citizens armed with solid information.