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Jacobin - January 27, 2020

"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."

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. ...
Read full commentary at Jacobin