How public policy can help save local news

January 24, 2023
A map showing news deserts in the United States

It’s understandable that the idea that government should help save local media makes many journalists’ skin crawl. How can reporters get support from one of the institutions we’re supposed to be holding accountable?

In this case, journalists should rethink their concerns. Here’s why:

The local news crisis is severe—and on a scale beyond the capacity of philanthropy alone. More than 1,800 communities have no local news. Thousands more have ghost newspapers that barely cover their communities. The number of reporters per 100,000 people has dropped 62 percent since 2004.

Newspapers saw a drop in advertising revenue of $40 billion or 82 percent since 2000. By contrast, philanthropic efforts contribute a few hundred million each year. They can do more, but they won’t be able to do it alone.

Less local news leads to lower voter turnout, less civic participation in Parent Teacher Associations and other groups, more corruption, higher taxes, and lower bond ratings.  And in general it makes it harder for voters to hold elected officials accountable, and for communities to solve their problems.

In the past, government has devised policies that protected editorial independence. The Founding Fathers believed it was crucial to have not just the right to a free press but the reality of a functioning free press. So they decided to give a massive subsidy to newspapers. The Post Office Act of 1792 gave a lower postage rate to newspapers. In 1801, 45 percent of all pieces of mail were periodicals but the publications covered only 8 percent of the costs.

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The postal subsidy spurred the growth of a robust local newspaper system—more than any other country, observed Alexis de Tocqueville approvingly: “It would diminish their importance to believe that [newspapers] serve only to guarantee liberty; they maintain civilization.”

Key to the law’s success was its neutrality: There were no government officials giving out grants. Newspapers of all sorts benefited, according to a simple, transparent formula (based on distance traveled).   

At other points, policymakers have helped shape the media landscape without direct subsidies. The Federal Communications Commission decision to give out licenses locally, instead of nationally (as had been done in other countries), led to our system of local TV news and radio. The FCC also decided to give out licenses for “noncommercial” broadcasters—laying the groundwork for public radio and TV.  The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 helped create the modern system of public TV and radio by providing subsidies to hundreds of local public broadcasting stations.

It’s also worth noting that we have had no problem with the government providing massive packages of assistance to American industries that were deemed important to the country, including the auto industry and the financial sector. A vibrant, free local press is as important to the country as those industries.

Local news is a public good. If consumers aren’t willing to support local news, why should taxpayers? Because it is what economists call “a public good.” This means it involves products and services that might not make for a viable business but have significant, and often diffuse, value to residents.

For instance, having good coverage of schools likely helps parents be more engaged, which helps improve the quality of schools. Coverage of municipal government leads to higher bond ratings. Coverage of polluters leads to fewer toxins in the air. Coverage of candidates makes democracy function better and ultimately makes it easier for communities to solve their own problems.

Think about libraries. We have never said, “We only need bookstores because if people aren’t willing to pay for it, it’s not important.” Rather, we’ve said we need both bookstores and libraries because profit-driven and public-interest-driven activities are complementary but different. We must now think of certain types of local reporting as a community resource that needs community support.  

Time is of the essence.  On average, two newspapers are shuttering each week. News deserts are spreading. Ghost papers are proliferating. Layoffs continue.

And new bad-faith actors have created more than 1,000 shady websites masquerading as local news sites. Much of it is created by Democratic and Republican political activists, funded by dark political money. They mimic the attributes of real local news but actually are there to push particular candidates or parties. The only way to block them is with a stronger, real local press.

If we don’t act, we are spiraling toward the creation of a “tribal press” for local news—based on partisan harangues, not community reporting—just as we have for national cable TV.

All of this is why a remarkably broad range of media and civic groups—including free-press groups—have formed a new organization, Rebuild Local News. Building on the work of an informal coalition that started in 2020, we are now enthusiastic advocates for certain types of urgent government action, as part of a multifaceted effort to revitalize community journalism.

Here is our grand plan for how to save local news through policies that don’t endanger editorial independence. It includes: 

  • A tax credit for consumers to subscribe to or donate to local news
  • A tax credit for small businesses to advertise in local news
  • A tax credit for local news organizations to hire and retain local journalists

These work mostly by amplifying the buying power of thousands or millions of local players, without relying on someone at a government agency to give out grants. There are other ideas out there that could accomplish similar goals without undermining the First Amendment.  

Government support is not the only or even primary way to save local news. I’ve spent  more than a decade pushing various efforts to help grow the nonprofit sector of local news and draw in philanthropic support from donors large and small. It is also imperative that the commercial media sector continue to innovate and improve their business models. While I do not think they will, by themselves, be able to generate the kinds of revenue needed to support good, civically valuable journalism on the local level, we also cannot get there without for-profit newsrooms, grounded deeply in communities. Part of energizing both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors will be creating new ownership structures and forms of financing. 

But given the severity of the crisis—and the urgency—those thrusts will be necessary but not sufficient.

Indeed, government policies of the right sort could help both commercial business models to grow, financing pools to accumulate, and nonprofit local news to expand. We shouldn’t view public policy as being a substitute for the other steps that are essential, but rather as a way of making it more likely that those private efforts will succeed.

Well-designed public policy can also help with sustainability in the long run. For instance, many publications have concluded that advertising alone will not be enough and that they need to bring in more revenue via subscriptions. But especially in lower-income and smaller-population areas, it’s hard to get enough people to subscribe. A subsidy for people who subscribe would ride atop the purchasing choices of consumers but give them more buying power—yet a publication would still only benefit if it makes its offerings good enough to merit consumer interest.

We understand the anxiety about government involvement. And policy must be constructed carefully. But it can be done—and has been done—in a way that can save local news while preserving editorial independence. We are now seeing the beginning of a movement to chart that course.

Steve Waldman is President of Rebuild Local News and co-founder of Report for America.