E&P "Shop Talk"

In defense of (some) old media

Writing off legacy media will lead to bad public policy

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After the Los Angeles Times layoffs were announced, respected author and professor Jeff Jarvis declared, “It may finally be time to give up on old journalism and its legacy industry.” In response to my article calling for government help in California, he added, “Giving more money to old media is throwing good after bad.”

First, a bit of brazen credibility-building: I left “old media” (Newsweek) in 1999 to co-found a website, started two websites after that and later co-founded Report for America, a nonprofit that has placed subsidized reporters into much beloved digital-only startups like Mississippi Today, Sahan Journal, MLK50 and Outlier. In other words, I’m a fervent startup and nonprofit booster.

But I disagree that it’s time to dispense with “legacy” or “old” media. First, even generalizing about “old media” is absurd. That category includes about 7,000 local news entities of different shapes, sizes and ownership structures, including most Black and Hispanic newspapers. As a reminder of what they do, here are a few recent headlines: “How Bail Became a Way to Jail for the Poor”(Amsterdam News); “Where oh where have all the Black superintendents gone?”(Houston Defender);  “Entre Tonatico y Waukegan: El golpe del coronavirus a una población binacional,” a piece about how a community in Illinois and one in Mexico gave each other COVID (La Opinion, Chicago).

Ohhhhh. You probably meant we should get rid of old media other than those covering communities of color! 

What about the Marion County Record in Kansas, whose tiny staff did so much local accountability reporting that the sheriff raided its offices?

Ohhhh, you meant we should ditch old media other than ethnic media or charming rural newspapers. 

So the real problem must be the big city dailies. Except in his piece, Jarvis (who is an old friend) noted that The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Advance publications (Newhouse family) in Alabama seem to be surviving or better.” In addition, this year’s Pulitzers included many legacy media, and the (much younger!) Online Journalism Awards’ finalists included The Seattle Times, the Miami Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Louisville Courier Journal, The Arizona Republic and The Salt Lake Tribune.

So “old media” is pathetic ...  except for the ones that aren’t. And we should only invest in nonprofit media ... except for the for-profits we like. 

The binary of “old” vs. “new” media is close to worthless, as is pitting “commercial” media against nonprofits.

Why does it matter what phrase we use? First, it’s demoralizing to the people at these places — aka most local reporters in America — who are working just as hard to serve their communities, often against greater odds. 

It muddies the waters of where progress is being made. In addition to bright spots among some dailies (mostly the ones not owned by hedge funds or big chains), hundreds if not thousands of weeklies are still out there — some flailing but others adapting nicely. For instance, The Big Bend Sentinel (started in 1926) has revived by adding a coffee shop to help finance great journalism. We should be learning from and replicating those successes.

 We risk misdiagnosing the problem. I suspect that when critics deride old media, they mostly mean newsrooms bought by chains and hedge funds and are now guided less by public service than greed and crushing debt. True that.  

So, how does one craft public policies that encourage creating a more community-grounded media? It’s tempting to say we should have a government agency — advised by smart people like Jeff Jarvis — to give out grants based on sophisticated assessments of the capacity of newsrooms, their leadership and the nature of the communities — the way a foundation might. Boston Globe? Thumbs up. LA Times? Thumbs down. Scratch out Sinclair; thumbs up for NBC.

But the government doesn’t usually do this approach well, and it would be especially perilous when it comes to the media. A few years ago, a progressive Senator proposed creating a federal agency called the Corporation for Public Newspapers to give thoughtfully targeted grants to those news outlets focused on under-covered communities. But if that bill had passed in 2016, I'm guessing the head of the agency in 2017 would have been Steve Bannon. Public policy with a scalpel sounds great until the instrument is in the hands of people you don't like.

And I do fear that the more discretionary decision-making involved, the more likely the public would view the program as a way of rewarding the favored media of whoever was in power. That would further erode trust in the media.

We could do nothing at all, but that would have catastrophic consequences, too, in allowing the spread of news deserts, misinformation and polarization.

Instead, we should learn from the most successful government effort to help the news media. One of the first things the first Congress did was approve a massive subsidy for newspapers — by providing them with very low postage rates. It would be the size of the NASA budget in today’s dollars.

Crucially, it was “content-neutral” and operated according to universal rules. The law did not require or allow Ben Franklin to peer through his pince-nez at a pile of newspapers, deciding which were enlightened. All newspapers got cheap postage rates, which meant the policy subsidized both Federalists and Jeffersonians, scurrilous rags and erudite treatises. They lived with that rough justice, and the program worked brilliantly, creating the most vibrant newspaper industry in the world.

Another policy role model is the charitable deduction. Instead of instituting a program to give government grants to favored charities, the United States offers a tax deduction to anyone who donates to a 501c3. If you think about it too hard, this approach can anger you. Dammit, my tax dollars are subsidizing Jeff Jarvis's crazy charity decisions! (The Society to Prevent Mocking of Journalism Professors? What the hell?) Yet the charitable deduction is popular and has successfully helped America create the biggest nonprofit sector in the world.

Learning from these two models, we would want our local news policies to be content-neutral, future-friendly, First-Amendment-compliant, operated according to a few simple rules, bottom-up, bureaucratically light, an entitlement — and very big. Did I forget to mention that these blunt-instrument entitlement programs and tax subsidies tend to be much larger than governed-by-the-experts discretionary spending programs?

While a government program should not pick journalistic winners and losers on a case-by-case basis, it absolutely should adopt incentives that nudge behavior and the system in the right direction.

So, the tax credit for small businesses that advertise with local news is exciting because it relies on restaurants and dry cleaners to figure out which publication would be more effective for them — and publications, in turn, have to sell the small businesses on the merits of advertising with them.  

Might Joe’s Bar & Grill pick a newspaper that you do not like? For sure, just as the postal subsidy and the charitable deduction helped players I don't like. But the overall impact — and the fact that it is less likely to be perceived as favoring either liberal or conservative media — would make it worth it.

A tax credit to encourage the employment of local reporters has good incentives, too. Publications get a benefit tied to the number of employees they have. If they add reporters, they get more; if they cut staff, they get less. The bill already limits how many slots can go to big corporations, but it could be sharpened further. If there’s enough public support, one could add a financial bonus for those who add more reporters or a clause requiring a 120-day waiting period before a paper could be sold to an out-of-state company. (More policy ideas here).

The federal version of the local reporter employment credit would inject $1.7 billion into the local news system over five years, making it the biggest public support for local news since that postal subsidy and triple the size of Press Forward.

Would some of that money go to the cursed LA Times? Yep. But a) perhaps they would have had fewer layoffs, and b) they still do a ton of good work, and c) the bill also would have provided $120 million to Black and Hispanic media and $120 million for nonprofit media — including for all of those inspiring startups Jeff wrote about.

That points to a strange psychological phenomenon I keep coming across. Sometimes, people focus more on ensuring that players they hate don’t get help than on ensuring that the good ones get support. (“I don't want my tax dollars going to ...”) That approach may satisfy a human yen to punish our enemies, but does it improve the local news landscape?

Here’s a clue: even though the payroll tax credit included bad old media, it was nonetheless endorsed by the trade associations representing digital startups, nonprofits, Black newspapers and Hispanic media. It’s almost as if they understood their own interests better than those who sniff at the “corporate” elements of the bill.  

The best argument against allowing a penny to go to the worst of old media is that propping them up might delay the arrival of reformation. This is an argument against policies that just shower funds on large legacy media companies based on traffic or revenue metrics. However, I am confident that an energetic startup with more targeted help will crush a brain-dead hedge-fund-owned paper in the marketplace any day. 

If God were giving out the money, with total omniscience and benevolence (maybe not the Old Testament God then), we could consider policies that only reward the just and punish the wicked.  

But in our real world, we need to look at whether policies will lift up the local news field in general, so we don’t have an information apocalypse and then create the best possible incentives for constructive behavior. Consumers, advertisers, donors, viewers, listeners and readers will take care of the rest.

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and co-founder of Report for America.

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  • KurtHildebrand

    Our small local newspaper isn't media, it's a medium, and one that continues to do award winning work while under the constant pressure to remain profitable. The Record-Courier is special to us, but it's not alone among the tiny publications across this country that are doing the day to day legwork to keep communities informed. People love that our town has a newspaper, with an office and real people they can visit. I'll admit to leaning into the old country editor thing, it certainly doesn't hurt. Maybe that's why academia and big media tend to overlook those of us who serve actual communities. During the pandemic, people asked where they could donate. I told them, don't hand us money, buy an ad. Put people to work. When asked what they would put in an ad, I answered "Say you support local news." And they did. There are newspapers in Nevada that survived for decades off legals. If the government really wants to help, then stop fighting publication of those notices. All I ask is that people let us do our jobs. If we fail after all that, then that's on us.

    Monday, February 5 Report this