As a conservative, this is not the kind of thing I usually find myself saying, but the situation is dire and the consequences for our democracy are immense.
As a conservative, I’m not quick to invoke the term “market failure” as a justification for government intervention. But that’s exactly what the decline of local journalism requires. Local newspapers, the first line of democratic accountability for local government, are in free fall. The Youngstown Vindicator, the latest victim, just announced that it is closing, after 150 years of continuous operation in the Mahoning Valley of Ohio.
As the Pew Research Center recently reported, the number of newsroom employees at newspapers in the United States plummeted by 45 percent between 2008 and 2017. Closings and forced mergers of smaller newspapers are common (most recently the shotgun marriage between The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate). But Pew reports that even the top third have seen newsroom layoffs just since 2017. When a hostile takeover of Gannett (owner of 120 newspapers) loomed, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer expressed concern about their capacity to “create high-quality local journalism in their communities.”
This is a threat to democracy. But it’s an opportunity for public media. The time has come for a successor to the 1964 Carnegie Commission to reimagine the outdated Public Broadcasting Act and the role of government funding in the media. The goal should be not more funding but a major redirection, toward support of local journalism by freeing funds that currently go toward purposes that the private media market now provides.
First, a bit of history. In 1961, Newton Minow, President John Kennedy’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously labeled the television programming of the time “a vast wasteland,” sparking a call for change. By 1964, the Carnegie Corporation of New York had convened a commission to make the case for public television, which it foresaw as a “new and fundamental institution in American culture.”
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, providing a steady stream of federal funding to support production of programming for both television and radio that would “be responsive to the interests of people” and that “involves creative risk.”
It was a major policy success, from children’s television to NPR, an afterthought in the original act. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a new funding vehicle, provided federal support. But the media landscape has changed beyond recognition since 1967, while the Public Broadcasting Act has remained unchanged. With Amazon, Netflix and HBO taking “creative risk,” we can focus federal funding on the distinct need for local journalism — to provide the oxygen of information that binds local communities.
The public media status quo doesn’t adequately address the need. Of the $445 million distributed annually by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, on whose board I served from 2013 to 2018, some $320 million is distributed directly to local television and radio broadcasters — including for the production of local content. In practice, however, the bulk of these funds do not stay in their local communities. Instead, local stations use the funds to purchase national programming and for dues to NPR and PBS. In the case of radio, some $23 million in federal funds must, by statute, be used only to support national programming.
But we now have access to NPR and PBS through smartphones. Local stations will soon no longer have a role to play, unless they can produce their own original programming. To its credit, public radio has recognized that need and has increasingly moved to fill the void — NPR stations in Boston, New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Dallas have become local news powerhouses.
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That is not true, however, in most of the country, where news deserts are growing.
A new Carnegie Commission should confront this risk to American democracy and re-evaluate the role of public media. Such a panel should include representation from those within the current system, but it should also include a wide range of members from all levels of government, from social media giants, from commercial television and radio, from academia and from political parties. It should be imaginative, looking at issues not only of content but also of access: Does it still make sense to prioritize investments in over-the-air infrastructure, or would rural broadband be the appropriate successor? Should the bulk of funding still be dedicated to television, the most expensive form of production? How can public media better reflect the country’s full range of cultures and viewpoints?
To make it happen, the Aspen Institute, the Carnegie Corporation and the Koch Foundation or other similar institutions could join hands and open wallets. It has been more than 50 years since the Public Broadcasting Act. The world has changed — so should public media.
This piece originally appeared in The New York Times
Howard Husock is vice president for policy research and publications at the Manhattan Institute.
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