Our democracy and its cornerstone — the trusted local independent newspaper — are in crisis. There is no question that the revival of local, independent newspaper stewardship is critical to shoring up the wobbly legs of our democracy.
Today I will share, in priority of positive impact, the actions which can and, in most cases, must be taken by the federal government before it is too late.
As you read the list, keep in mind that localism of ownership is critical and that newspapers should never again become controlled by absent investors who do not care about our communities. Such investors will continue to milk every cent out of local newspapers until they become ghost papers in news deserts, with scant coverage and dire consequences for the health of towns, cities, counties and the nation.
After two decades of unchecked media consolidation and growing tech dominance, more than a fifth of Americans now live in places with little to no local news coverage. That includes 70 million people living in counties with no local newspaper at all, according to researchers at Northwestern University’s Medill School. The current pace of two newspapers failing per week, on average, will increase without federal intervention, swift leadership and new ideas.
Here is my list of priorities for saving local, independent newspapers and democracy:
Keep in mind that newspapers have become hybrid print and digital products. This was a necessity as Big Tech’s monopoly took ever more advertising. Also, keep in mind technological and generational changes, with younger readers preferring digital delivery and most older readers preferring print. This dichotomy plays out in both how we develop our content mix and distribute our content.
Local newspapers were never intended to be a cash cow for short-term, absentee investors. They are local institutions providing a vital service to their communities.
Newspapers are also the only business specifically mentioned and given protection in the U.S. Constitution. That’s because the Founding Fathers knew that a robust newspaper industry is essential to the success of America’s democracy.
Saving the local free press is critical and cannot wait. The time for action is now.
Frank Blethen is the publisher of The Seattle Times and the great-grandson of the 126-year-old company's founder.
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I'm not entirely surprised that Frank Blethen would see an opportunity to offload Seattle Times newsroom costs on the Federal treasury in the name of preserving democracy. Who knows, maybe his intentions are for the best. However, nothing will kill the free speech faster than government control of the press...which is what Blethen's agenda will accomplish. There is no financial or operational barrier to publishing the news. The business model remains entirely valid. All that is lacking is the will to do it, and as long as investors don't see value in publishing the news, and the public has no interest in their community beyond the political rants of the blogosphere, no amount of government largess will make a bit of difference.
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