Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

New Deserts and Public Media: Supporting Informational Democracy by Reviving Local News

-- By JohnClayton - 17 Apr 2021


My first job out of undergrad was in York, Pennsylvania, a small city with an increasingly unique quality: It was served by not one, but two daily newspapers. I worked as a reporter for the morning paper; our counterparts published in the afternoon. Our newsroom was well-stocked given our modest circulation: Two dozen reporters, plus desk staff. Plenty to cover city hall and school board meetings and Friday night football.

Less than half that staff remains. A few years after I left, a conglomerate bought the paper and outsourced jobs to a centralized editing hub. Our competitor is not doing much better. It is hard to imagine York will stay a two-newspaper town much longer.

Still, York is lucky. A quarter of newspapers and half of local journalism jobs have disappeared in the last 15 years, as audiences and ad dollars have migrated to the tech platforms. Researchers now study “news deserts”— swaths of the country that have no local newspaper.

For informational democracy to thrive, we must resurrect local news. Citizens and government alike have a vital interest in creating a revamped, sustainable, and federated infrastructure for community journalism.

The Centralization of Journalism

The Founders knew the press’s importance. James Madison argued that only an informed public could expose “public characters and measures” to the censorship of public opinion and preserve a government subservient to the people. In addition to revealing corruption, local journalism has been linked to holistic benefits: increased voter turnout, greater civic participation, reduced political polarization. Local media even help alert public health officials to the spread of disease—a salient concern in the time of COVID-19.

In theory, the internet should make the circulation of news easier. But the algorithmic marketplace of ideas is not suited to the mundanities of community journalism. The platforms prioritize stories that get clicks, not those that serve informational democracy.

The centralized system of private equity journalism hastened local news’ decline. Conglomerates like the one that bought my newspaper follow a simple model: snap up outlets, slash costs, and chase online ad revenues. A once-federated news ecosystem mutated: reporting from York funneled through editing hubs in different cities and states. “Duplicative” jobs were cut. Page views became our core performance metric.

Individual journalists and outlets still do good work. But the biology of local news has changed: A Frankenstein of holding companies and their gutted local newsrooms searching for enough eyeballs and advertisers to stay afloat.

Re-federating Local News

The priorities of an informational democracy must include a renewed focus on sustainable, community-based news reporting. This is not merely a challenge for private or philanthropic actors; governments can—and should—encourage the development of a new, federated media ecosystem.

Governments have experimented with ways to save journalism. One solution, enacted in Australia, forces tech companies to pay news outlets for posting their content. But such an approach seemingly encourages platforms to devalue news content and does nothing to fill news deserts. Perhaps more critically, it marries the success of journalistic outlets to that of the platforms, and ties a tool of democracy to the anti-democratic agents of behavioral collection and control. We should be breaking centralized models of content sharing, not entrenching them.

Expanding public media

A better approach is infrastructure-based: to adapt the public media model to create replicable, federated digital news ecologies in local communities. Federal funds could be directed to a nonprofit corporation—similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—which would support the creation of decentralized, Wiki-like news hubs in underserved areas. The sites would be designed to be run cheaply, with lean staffs, minimal overhead, and community participation through moderated, hyperlocal forums. Importantly, the hubs should be sustained long-term via diverse funding, including reader support and hyperlocal advertising, in addition to small amounts of government support.

Like NPR affiliates, these local hubs could repurpose each other’s content. The focus of the initiative, however, would be to ensure reporters on the ground in local communities as part of a durable, cost-effective, and easily expandable public news network.

Training journalists

This new public media will need trained reporters. A new generation of local journalists could be educated through community colleges and public college associate degree programs, as part of a renewed push for tuition-free post-secondary education. Reporting is not a lucrative profession. But it becomes more viable when an education in journalism does not require an expensive, four-year degree.

Moreover, these public and community college programs could be integrated into the public media network, allowing students to write, report, and contribute to their local hubs. One need look no further than college campuses to see the vibrant news ecosystems that student-generated media can create. (My college newspaper also covered municipal and state news, in addition to campus issues.) Aspiring journalists in these programs should receive not only reporting training, but technical instruction in how to cheaply build, create, and manage their own news hubs.

Thus, a true public media ecosystem can be established: one that provides a decentralized, resilient infrastructure for journalism in underserved communities, while replenishing a corps of trained, agile reporters to ensure local news thrives.


Fourth estate traditionalists may be uncomfortable with so large a role for government in shaping the news media. I do not argue that public media alone can solve the local news crisis; private innovation has a part to play. But once one accepts the democratic necessity of local news and the dire state of for-profit journalism, an expansion of public media hardly seems radical. Even less so when one considers that the government has long structured the media ecosystem. Indeed, York’s two newspapers take advantage of a federal antitrust carveout that allows newspapers to pool management, advertising, printing operations.

Never has our media ecosystem needed more restructuring. A revitalized ecology of local public media hubs can help fill news deserts in the short-term, and provide a model for lean, responsive, community-based reporting that others across the country can replicate.

This, as you see, isn't really an essay about law or the First Amendment. It's primarily a policy argument about the need for a federation model for local news, as an alternative to tax-based redistribution from the parasite's platforms. It's an appealing argument that doesn't need to be constitutionally required to be interesting. You could tie the hub concept to the community college journalism programs that should be part of the ecosystem. You could show why the geometry of private-equity journalism, with its centralizing hubs as opposed to federating ones, leads to the other form of ecosystem by an almost biological alternation. That's the route to improvement, to remove the law and give the social policy analysis more room.

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r8 - 05 May 2021 - 18:40:47 - JohnClayton
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