We Need a Media System That Serves People’s Needs, Not Corporations’

Our corporate media system prioritizes making money over producing adversarial journalism and covering working-class issues. We should dare to imagine something different: a public media system that privileges democracy over profits.

Pedestrians walk by the San Francisco Chronicle building on February 24, 2009 in San Francisco, CA. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The past decade has witnessed the rapid decline of the newspaper industry in the United States. Revenue and readership have dropped precipitously, halving the nation’s newspaper employees. Actual journalism is vanishing, misinformation is proliferating, and our public media system — ideally a safety net for when the market fails to support the press — remains utterly impoverished compared to its global counterparts. From the collapse of its advertising-dependent business model to the dominance of platform monopolies like Facebook and Google, the commercial news media system faces a structural crisis.

Commercial journalism never fulfilled all of society’s democratic needs, but now it’s abundantly clear that the market can’t support the bare minimum levels of news media — especially local, international, and investigative reporting — that democracy requires. Any path toward reinventing journalism must acknowledge that the market is its destructor, not savior. Commercialism lies at the heart of this crisis; removing it could be transformative.

If we acknowledge that no entrepreneurial solution lies just around the bend — if we stop grasping for a technological fix or a market panacea — we can look more aggressively for non-market alternatives. In doing so, we can dare to imagine a new public media system for the digital age, one that privileges democracy over profits. A journalism that seeks out silences in society and ruthlessly confronts those in power. An information system that maintains laser-like focus on climate change, hyper-inequality, mass incarceration, and other social emergencies. A media system that treats workers as more than an afterthought.

US history offers fleeting glimpses of an alternative system — experiments such as labor outlets, community-owned newspapers, media cooperatives, and, once upon a time, a thriving radical press. Even mainstream commercial news occasionally has provided investigative reporting that exposes corruption, changes policy, and benefits all of society. But these moments have been the exception. The history of US media is largely a history of misrepresentation, exclusion, excessive commercialism, and systemic market failure.

However, it didn’t — and doesn’t — have to be this way. Another media system is possible — one that’s democratically governed and accessible to all.

Infrastructures of Democracy

We learn in school that self-governance requires an informed society sustained by a free press. Yet we rarely reflect on the infrastructures and policies necessary to maintain such a system.

The loss of effective journalism and rampant misinformation are structural problems that require structural solutions. More to the point, they’re collective action problems that require policy interventions.

Salvaging a nonprofit model from the ashes of market-driven jour­nalism goes far beyond resuscitating a golden age that never existed or preserving a status quo steeped in inequality and discrimi­nation. Guided by an ethical commitment to ensuring that all members of society can access information and create their own media, a public system can provide a strong base for further democratization. De-commercialization is an essential first step.

The late sociologist Erik Olin Wright gave us a useful schematic to help think through the possibilities for de-commercializing jour­nalism and creating a truly public system. Wright proposed four general models for building alternatives to capitalism, each based on a different logic of resist­ance: smashing, taming, escaping, or eroding. After assessing these four approaches, Wright suggested that simultaneously eroding and taming capitalist relationships over time offered the best strategy for change — pushing to reform the existing system in ways that improve people’s everyday lives (taming), while also erecting alternative structures that gradually replace commercial models (eroding).

We can apply this strategic vision to our media system, with five general approaches:

  • Establishing “public options” (i.e., noncommercial/nonprofit, supported by public subsidies), such as well-funded public media institutions and municipal broadband networks.
  • Breaking up/preventing media monopolies and oligopolies to en­courage diversity and to curtail profit-maximizing behavior.
  • Regulating news outlets through public interest protections and public ser­vice obligations such as ascertainment of society’s information needs.
  • Enabling worker control by unionizing newsrooms and facilitating media cooperatives.
  • Fostering community ownership, oversight, and governance of newsrooms, and mandating accountability to diverse constituencies.

While we should pursue these approaches simultaneously, the most surefire way to tame and erode commercial media is to create a truly publicly owned system.

Creating a New Public Media System

In the US, proposing massive public investments in news media usually elicits two immediate objections. One is the concern that a publicly subsidized system would create a mouthpiece for the state. The other is cost.

Regarding the first, real-world examples suggest that media subsidies aren’t a slippery slope toward authoritarianism. Democratic nations around the globe heavily subsidize media while enjoying democratic benefits that put the US to shame. Public media and stronger democracies often go together.

Nonetheless, any public media system must erect a firewall to separate it from government and other powerful influences. Although government would play a key administrative role in establishing and protecting this system, it should be publicly operated, independent, and democratic in determining what specific kinds of media content and news outlets are supported. Political autonomy must be tethered to economic independence with adequate funding and resources — otherwise we’d simply reenact past errors and recreate another weak public system susceptible to political and economic capture.

On the question of cost, we must first remind ourselves that a viable press system isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity. Similar to a classic “merit good,” journalism isn’t a “want,” but a “need.” To support this social necessity, rough estimates suggest we need an annual budget of around $30 billion.

That may seem large, but relative to the problem — and compared to the outlays for recent tax cuts and military expenditures — it’s actually a modest proposal. This is especially true considering the enormous costs to society if we continue without a functioning press system.

Ideally, we would have a guaranteed annual budget that would come directly from the US Treasury, but a second op­tion would be a large trust fund supported by multiple rev­enue streams. Since this funding shouldn’t become a political football subject to the congressional appropriations pro­cess, it could be sustained by already-existing subsidies and mandated levies on communication oligopolies.

While individuals could contribute, a trust of this scope would require large funders. Possible sources might include levees on electronics and devices, tax vouchers, repurposing international broadcasting subsidies, proceeds from spectrum sales, and taxing platform monopolies such as Facebook and Google.

Permanent support for a well-funded national public media ser­vice could help guarantee universal access to quality news. This “public op­tion” for journalism can address commercial media’s endemic problems, which render our information systems vulnerable to structural crisis and elite capture.

What Would a Truly Public Media System Look Like?

The fight for an independent public media system doesn’t end with funding. Once we’ve created the material conditions for this new system, we must ensure it remains truly democratic, owned and controlled by journalists and representative members of the public and operated in a bottom-up, transparent fashion in constant dia­logue with community members. In short, these newsrooms must reflect the diverse audiences they serve.

We might envision this project in layers: the funding layer (how will this public media system be financially sustained?); the govern­ance layer (how will resource allocations and other key decisions be made democratically?); the ascertainment layer (how will information needs be determined?); the infrastructure layer (how can we ensure distribution of and access to information, including universal broadband service and algorithms that privilege public media in search and in news feeds?); and the engagement layer (how can we ensure that local communities are involved in making their own news and contributing their stories?).

While administrators could distribute resources via centralized hubs at the federal, state, and regional levels, local media bureaus that represent the communities where they reside should make key governance decisions. Federal and state-level commissions could calculate how resources should be deployed to target news deserts, meet spe­cial communication needs, and focus on addressing gaps in news coverage, especially around inequality, global warming, elections, and other specific social needs and problems. This system would require a public media consortium comprised of policy experts, scholars, technologists, journalists, and public advocates that specialize in work relevant to each of these layers, while always reporting to and engaging local communities.

Free from the economic imperative of appealing to wealthy owners, investors, advertisers, and high-income audiences, media outlets could abandon various forms of redlining to include entire classes and communities previously neglected. They might focus less on clickbait and fluffy news and more on coverage devoted to the poor and to working-class issues. Instead of folding labor news into the business sections of newspapers, we might see permanent beats with teams of dedicated labor journalists covering everything from workers’ everyday lives to picket lines and the plight of unions.

This kind of journalism could lay bare the social costs of policy failure and the structural roots of inequality. Taking a page from what is now called “solutions journalism,” it could devote unwavering attention to combatting social injustice.

Liberating journalists from commercial constraints would allow them to practice the craft that led them to the profession in the first place. It would let journalists be journalists. And it would give them a stake in the ownership and governance of media institutions. Journalists also need strong unions to protect labor conditions and democratize newsrooms. A truly public media system should include worker-run cooperatives and other forms of collective own­ership. Ultimately, public media means public ownership of media institutions.

The US media system is riven with stark inequalities. It reflects class and racial divides, just as it perpetuates them. But given the right structural conditions, journalism can instead be a force for social jus­tice and radical change.

Building viable noncommercial alternatives will be a long, hard slog. Many flowers will bloom and wither. But starting with the premise that commercial models are a dead end can reinvigorate tired conversations about the future of journalism — and free us to think more boldly and creatively.

Reframing the Media

Too often, we assume that the market’s effects on journalism are inevitable — a force of nature beyond social control — or a public expression of democratic desires (“Give the people what they want”). If consumers (or advertisers, investors, and media owners) don’t support certain kinds of journalism, the argument goes, the market has spoken and we must let them perish.

Imagine if we designed public education according to a similar logic. If students elected not to pay for civics class, then it would be discontinued. It’s precisely this savage logic that’s snuffing out journalism in broad daylight. Only public investments in noncommercial media can support journalism that’s expensive to produce but rarely profitable.

The current market-driven system isn’t neutral or natural. The decisions we make in structuring our media are deeply political, laden with value judgments. And the present system naturalizes the powerful and profitable while defunding adversarial journalism.

Now is the time for creating counter-narratives and radical alternatives to the still-dominant corporate lib­ertarian paradigm. A radical vision of public media requires a policy program that does the following: reduces monopoly power; installs public interest protections; removes commercial pressures; and builds out public infrastruc­ture.

At the state and municipal levels, we can work toward programs such as community broadband services and local journalism initiatives. For inspira­tion, we can look to past US experiments — from municipal newspapers to coop­erative telephone networks — to imagine what these institutions might look like.

Our long-term plans require a transfor­mation at the federal level — driven by social movements from below — to create a new national public media system that builds on already-existing public spaces and infrastructures, including post offices, libraries, and public broadcasting stations. As newspapers transition into nonprofit status, they could also be integrated into this public media network.

For too long, US society has had the wrong debate about saving journalism. Conditioned not to see capitalism’s corrosive impact on news media, too many analysts misdiagnosed the problem because they failed to see commercialism at its core. Instead, we must clarify the structural roots of the crisis, expand the political imaginary for potential futures, identify alternatives, and help chart a path toward realizing them. And we must look ahead rather than behind us. Waxing nostalgic about a golden era of newspaper reporting, or pining for the days of three major television networks when Walter Cronkite told us “and that’s the way it is,” brings us no closer to the type of public media system that democracy requires.

Our goal must be to reinvent news media, not shore up old commercial models. Given this chance to unhook journalism from profit imperatives, we can reclaim and reinvent a public good. By designing a system that actually serves democracy, we can finally create the media we need.