The Media Today

Q&A: Victor Pickard on the layoffs at NPR, and how to better support public and local media

March 15, 2023

Recently, NPR announced that it would lay off ten percent of its staff and eliminate vacant positions to compensate for an estimated thirty-million-dollar shortfall in revenue. John Lansing, the CEO, blamed declining corporate sponsorships and advertising income. That same month, New York Public Radio canceled one of its longest-running news shows, The Takeaway, citing audience decline and financial difficulties. With these announcements, NPR and NYPR joined the ranks of other media companies who have cut staff of late, including Vox Media, Gannett, and the Washington Post. And budget strains aren’t just affecting national news giants. Recently, Axios reported furloughs at local papers owned by Lee Enterprises, including the Roanoke Times and the Lincoln Journal Star. 

Victor Pickard, a media policy expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, envisions a clear fix for the funding crisis hamstringing public media and local news organizations: the injection of more tax dollars. Pickard has been unimpressed by recent attempts to prop up market-based journalism structures at the federal level, such as the failed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2022, which would have allowed news organizations to collectively bargain publishing terms with online platforms like Facebook. Instead, he advocates increased government spending on local PBS and NPR affiliate stations. And he’d go a step further, arguing that municipalities should purchase dying local papers and that the federal government should fund locally-operated city papers. 

In the wake of the layoffs at NPR and elsewhere, I called Pickard to talk about the health of our public-media ecosystem, and what should be done to ensure that, in any future recession, more local and public-media staffers keep their jobs. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ER: What was your initial reaction to the NPR layoffs and the cancellation of WNYC’s
The Takeaway, which, in my opinion, covers stories that other outlets don’t? Do you think this points to worse to come?

VP: This goes without saying, but in this current moment, the loss of any news workers within any reputable, reliable news organization is a loss for all of us. It’s certainly a loss for those workers themselves, but we have to remind ourselves that this isn’t just about the industry or the reporter. This is about all of us, about our democracy. But I do think we also need to look at the systemic root of these layoffs. What was kind of shocking to me was how little critical commentary there was about the reason for these layoffs, which was because there was a reduction in advertising and corporate sponsorships. That really should raise red flags, because the whole point of having a public-media system is that it’s meant to be non-commercial; it’s meant to be driven by other imperatives. [Note: NPR has reported that thirty-seven percent of its income comes from corporate sponsorships.] We really should reflect on this and think about what has happened to our public media system if they’re so at the mercy of these market dependencies. 

I also heard that The Takeaway was being discontinued; I was very saddened to hear that. This goes to show it’s not just the loss of jobs, but it’s probably particular programs that might be doing riskier things or covering stories that aren’t commercially valuable, that aren’t attracting corporate sponsorship. That speaks to the idea of market censorship. It’s kind of an indirect consequence.

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You have a thesis, in your book Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society, that “commercialism degrades journalism.” Are the layoffs we are seeing an example of that? 

I see what’s happening today as a kind of culmination of some long-existing tensions and market failures that have always been present just beneath the surface, and often justified or overlooked. Today we’re seeing growing news deserts, and I would argue this is an example of where the commercial imperatives that dictate journalism must always be profitable have essentially driven the industry into the ground. There are vast areas where journalism is no longer profitable, so it’s being left to just wither away. In addition to the growing news deserts, there’s also what I call informational redlining: when a commercially-driven media system is trying to reach certain audiences that advertisers want to reach, many communities—especially poor communities and communities of color—aren’t well-served by those commercial media systems. 

Others have called this market censorship. We often don’t think of the market as systematically censoring our media. We’re more concerned about the government censoring our media, but I think you can make a solid argument that we know what happens if we allow our media to be so driven by these market imperatives. Many people think, Oh, it’s a shame that journalism is no longer profitable, but we’re just gonna have to let it wither away. But this really should be seen as a political choice, not just an act of nature. 

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2022 showed that some politicians are aware, at some level, about this issue. But you’ve argued that the contents of the JCPA, which Congress eventually dropped, demonstrated how little politicians actually comprehend or appreciate the value of local, publicly-funded journalism. Why is this?

The fact that the JCPA was the closest we’ve come so far at the federal level to making any substantive reform initiative that aims to bolster local journalism is pretty damning. I think it’s very telling that that is the limit of our political imagination. So if I were to put my finger on one big factor for what has constrained not just our political efforts, but our imagination about what’s possible, I would posit that it is a form of capitalist realism. It’s very difficult, especially here in the United States, to even think beyond market-based mechanisms to support journalism. And so even though the JCPA was calling for a kind of redistribution or rebalancing of the platforms and publishers, it was still very much embedded within this notion that journalism is first and foremost a commodity, not a public service. 

At this point, with accumulating evidence for systemic market failure, we really should be striving to take journalism out of the market altogether and try to preserve it from the ravages of the marketplace. We should think of it more as a public good, and that’s actually fairly common sense. We treat public education that way. We treat our military that way. There’s certain infrastructures and services within democratic society that we would never allow to be entirely driven by these market pressures and market relationships, but for historical reasons, we haven’t treated journalism that way. So we need to reframe our understanding.

How bad do you think things will get before people adopt this new framing or perspective on funding public media?

For many years, it was believed there was some new business model or technological fix around the corner that was going to save journalism, and I think we’re slowly giving up that ghost. I don’t see change happening in any kind of vacuum. I think that to salvage journalism, it’s going to be part of a broader pro-democracy or re-democratization movement. That will entail everything from protecting voting rights to confronting structural inequalities. This must be bound up in movements for racial justice. So all these things are going to need to be bound up and that’s going to require a lot of work across multiple fronts. 

I think it’s also going to require activists of all stripes to recognize the centrality of journalism to their movements. Historically, we’ve always known that. Abolitionists knew that. The labor movement has always known that. The civil rights movement knew that. There needs to be a core media strategy and that requires functioning local public journalism.

Is there a country that has a public media structure that you admire or that you would hope that we could take some lessons from?

I often trot out the BBC, but I do that rhetorically because Americans tend to have warm fuzzy feelings about the BBC. 

Yeah, we do, don’t we? Maybe it’s their accents.

Right, the British accent! But beyond the accent, it’s a very robust public broadcasting system that puts anything we have here to shame. All that said, any sort of romanticism I harbored toward the BBC has largely been beaten out of me by my British friends. They are very quick to tell me about all the problems with the BBC. So I’m not even sure what public broadcasting system I would single out as a truly democratic system where local communities have a say—that’s not just public in name, but that’s publicly owned and controlled in a truly participatory, democratic manner. I think that’s something all democratic societies need to grapple with. 

Timothy Neff and I looked at this in a study we did on thirty-three countries around the world, looking at how well these countries’ public broadcasting systems are being supported, how strong their respective democracies work, and what the correlation between the two is. We wrote a piece in CJR about our findings, which showed the strongest democracies also happen to have the strongest public broadcasting systems. That doesn’t necessarily mean causation. It was probably a number of factors, but at the very least it shows that government support of media is not leading these countries toward some sort of slippery slope toward totalitarianism. In fact, there’s accumulating research showing positive correlations between having strong public media and higher levels of political knowledge, civic engagement, and lower levels of extreme views. 

That slippery slope idea tends to be prominent in discussions about government-funded media. Recently, there have been reports, in NPR actually, about Jim Justice, West Virginia’s Republican governor, trying to interfere with the state’s public broadcaster. So this stuff does happen. If you were arguing with someone who says, We shouldn’t increase government funding of NPR because look at what happens when one person decides to abuse the system?, what would you counter with?

It’s a very legitimate question. I think instead of seeing it as further evidence for why the government shouldn’t support the media, I would argue rather that we actually need to provide more funding for public media to guarantee its independence, so that it is insulated from any undue influence. And it’s possible. Of course, there are cautionary tales. We can point to Hungary and Turkey and places where there have been varying degrees of state capture of public media. But for every cautionary tale, we have numerous cases where a strong public broadcasting system does not become the mouthpiece of the state. Any public system worth its name must guarantee that governance is driven by a democratically elected and independent governing board so that one person or one group of people or one political party should not be able to dictate what stories are being covered.

Is there anything else that’s particularly important in this discussion?

I think it’s always important to underscore what we have today, with our public broadcasting system and our commercial system, was not inevitable. It wasn’t just a natural evolutionary development. In fact, if you trace it back historically—especially to the nineteen thirties and forties, when our broadcast system was really taking shape—you see that the US was basically a global outlier compared to how systems developed in other countries around the world. Most democratic countries developed strong public systems instead of having their broadcasting be so reliant on advertising. So I think it’s important to underscore that kind of contingency—that we didn’t have to have the system that we’ve come to inherit. 

Something else is that the US is almost literally off the chart compared to how little we allocate towards our public broadcasting system compared to other democracies around the world. It comes up to one dollar and forty cents per person, per year, at the federal expenditure level. The UK and western and northern European countries get close to, or more than, a hundred dollars per person, per year. That factor alone affects our entire media ecosystem.

Other notable stories:

  • Today, a Trump-appointed judge in Texas will hear arguments in a case challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, an abortion drug. The judge scheduled the hearing late last week but initially declined to publicize it on the docket in a bid “to minimize disruptions and possible protests” at the courthouse, according to the Washington Post; per the AP, the judge asked lawyers in the case not to publicize the hearing either, citing death threats and harassment. The judge finally publicized the hearing on Monday after the Post reported on it and joined other newspapers in challenging the secrecy around it as “unconstitutional.” If the judge had succeeded in keeping the hearing a secret until the last minute, it would have been challenging for members of the media to attend, given that the court is in a relatively remote location.
  • The Texas Tribune’s Nic Garcia reports on the shuttering, at least for now, of the Canadian Record, a small-town paper in the Texas Panhandle whose owner is tired after years on the job. The paper was profitable, but its closure ​​”offers a fresh reminder of how perilous the news business is for most local publishers and the communities they are part of,” Garcia writes. “Rural newspapers like The Record face compounding threats.”
  • For CJR, Andrea Grimes—who founded a project called the Texas Writers Byline Scan to collect demographic data on writers for publications in that state—explains why tracking such data matters. Critics argue that the data doesn’t show the full picture of whether newsrooms are safe for journalists from marginalized backgrounds, but Grimes writes that industry conditions are unlikely to improve “without some kind of baseline.”
  • Data released by the US government showed that federal agencies had a bigger backlog of unfulfilled Freedom of Information Act requests in 2022 than in any other year since the government shutdown in 2014, Sara Fischer reports for Axios. Federal agencies actually fulfilled a record number of FOIA requests last year, according to the data, but couldn’t keep pace with incoming queries, which also hit record levels.
  • And the academic Michael J. Socolow makes the case that recent polling showing low levels of trust in American journalism might not be an entirely bad thing. “Attacks by politicians and exposure of unethical acts clearly lower public trust in journalism,” Socolow writes. “But measured skepticism can be healthy and media criticism comprises an essential component of media literacy—and a vibrant democracy.”

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Emily Russell is a CJR fellow.