US Media Is Collapsing, Here’s How to Save It

Mass layoffs are tearing through US media. To preserve a functioning media ecosystem, we need three things: immediate aid to struggling journalists, public subsidies to smaller news outlets, and eventually industry transformation into a publicly funded system.

Alissa Quart in Jacobin: The requests from independent journalists for grants, including personal emergency grants, have been coming in extra fast lately. Receiving them, me and my staff at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project feel like Lucille Ball grabbing the chocolates on the conveyor belt in that factory episode of I Love Lucy. The pace is picking up as publication closures and media layoffs push many into the world of full-time freelancing, where they compete for dwindling payouts against mounting competition. And as of last week, the Intercept, where my husband Peter Maass worked for ten years, has laid off fifteen of its staffers — including him. The media emergency just got even more personal.

Our family is far from alone. Sports Illustrated, formerly beefy with articles and bodacious with ads, has laid off its staff. Pitchfork, long my go-to for tart and encyclopedic endorsements or takedowns of music, has been folded, in a much-reduced form, into GQ — two media entities that, if they were people, would have never spoken to each other in high school. Meanwhile, the venerable Los Angeles Times announced it would be laying off at least 115 people, more than 20 percent of its staff.

Social media is full of predictable “thoughts and prayers” for American journalism in crisis, but not enough calls for action. Few people have any clue what to call for. What we need now are three major shifts. First, we need to pursue a program of fresh near-term media policy reform. Second, we need a new paradigm for media — an ambitious longer-term transformation in funding and ownership. And third, we need an immediate harm-reduction response for reporters and smaller media entities at grave risk.

On the first count, we should look to civic media models like the one proposed by communications scholar Robert McChesney. Drawing from participatory budgeting and inspired by economist Dean Baker, McChesney’s idea for reform is a local government process where citizens vote on how their county or city’s government media budget should be directed. McChesney proposes a news media voucher program — the Citizenship News Voucher — which, as he wrote in 2010, would make it so that “every American adult gets a $200 voucher she can use to donate government money to any nonprofit news medium of her choice. She will indicate her choice on her tax return. . . . A government agency, possibly operating out of the Internal Revenue Service, can be set up to allocate the funds and to determine eligibility.”

As for whether this reform could happen in real life — it’s already being considered. Washington, DC has started looking at a media voucher plan after a council member introduced a novel bill, which would offer government-funded vouchers to DC residents that they can donate to local journalism venues that they select.

Meanwhile, New Jersey and California are experimenting with a media subsidy model. In 2022, California governor Gavin Newsom modeled a necessary response to the collapse of local news by signing California Assembly Bill 179, which provided $25 million for local reporting in underrepresented places. Government policy to stop the collapse of our media infrastructure is not only feasible but already underway.

Solutions are particularly urgent now. In 2023, local newspaper closures shot up to a dismal 2.5 per week. More than two hundred counties — almost all places where working-class and poor people live — are now “news deserts” where people no longer know what’s happening at their statehouses or their courthouses.

Near-term policy reform is just the beginning, of course. To create an equitable and sustainable media ecosystem, we should change our mindset about and framing of what media is. Not-for-profit media must become the norm — not the exception. Media, after all, is a form of education.

We should, for example, consider a return to a Works Progress Administration (WPA) model, where 6,600 reporters were sent out into the field, underwritten by the government, as part of the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression, covering the lives of some of the poorest Americans. Our organization, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, is a version of this — only, given the absence of WPA-style policy programs of late, without the public funding part. We support hundreds of journalists, a good number of them financially struggling, to report on their experiences and communities and then copublish them nationally. But we are a staff of four, and this is a nonprofit that we raise money for each year. The government needs a version of what we are doing on a much larger scale. More here.