Why should stations have to pay for ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ or national radio programming?
We often hear about threats to American democracy, but this one is plausible. Layoffs at the New York Daily News, the Denver Post and many other local and regional newspapers have raised an alarm about “news deserts.” The Pew Research Center reports that the total of 39,210 people who worked as newspaper journalists (including editors and photographers) in 2017 represents a drop of 15% from 2014 and 45% from 2004.
The concern over the local-news vacuum has prompted at least one state to take action, but the plan doesn’t much resemble independent journalism or a real newsroom. New Jersey‘s Legislature has allocated $5 million for a “civic information consortium.” A board, made up of political appointees and representatives of universities, would give grants to groups to “show demonstrable usefulness to a local community”—no substitute for a newspaper staff.
Yet there already exists a nationwide network of independent local nonprofits charged with providing news and information to communities. It is the system of 1,400 public broadcasting radio and television licensees. Established through the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, the system was intended originally to provide a better alternative to what was then described as broadcasting’s “vast wasteland.” Today, though—in an era when HBO, Netflix and Amazon have created a new golden age of television drama and documentary—the market failure is in local journalism.
Howard Husock is Vice President for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute.