The case for government investment in journalism, a manifesto

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is an associate professor in the School of Communications at Elon University and vice president of Journalism That Matters.

At the end of this discourse, someone will accuse me of fouling my own nest. That’s if you ever even see this commentary, printed or online in what used to be called the local newspaper.

Regardless, it will circulate. As do the words of the late Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS journalist, more than 50 years later that start this letter. Because if the structures of networks and media ownership and cultural representation remain the same  — if they continue unaltered – then the main of us may look up one day dazed at what has transpired and realize we have done it to ourselves.

The North Carolina General Assembly this spring is considering the rollback of a longtime requirement for some local governments that legal notices be printed in newspapers, a revenue stream for publishers totaling millions of dollars a year. States across the country, including neighboring Virginia, have been gnawing on the issue as well.

Should HB 504 become law, nine North Carolina counties and municipalities would no longer be dependent on their local publications as a vehicle for bidding out state contracts, announcing property foreclosures, or conducting in public any of several other government or legal business. The counties represented in this bill could instead post notices on their own electronic servers.

But what would be lost in the transaction? The legacy local newspaper, most likely, already facing technological disruption, the “great collapse” of revenue from classified, display and subscriptions, a product struggling to reinvent itself in our brave, new digital world.

Since 2007, more than 120 newspapers have been lost to these struggles. Many locales and communities across the United States no longer have access to fresh news and information as newspapers reduce their frequency from seven days a week to four or three or go totally online. Residents glean what they can from the news aggregators, but are more  knowledgeable about what is happening far away than what is happening in their own back yard.

But if the publishers of the local newspapers might set their lobbying teams to pause and look at the consequences of that loss beyond their own bottom lines, they would find that they are compelled to speak up now, because something much larger than newspapers themselves will be lost.

Our sense of place. Our sense of democracy. Our ability to learn and influence our unfolding narratives.

As long as we are willing to continue to allow community news, information and storytelling to die, then we complicit in our growing ignorance. The water is slowly heating, and we will warm ourselves, complacent believing that we are receiving all that we should. Until we are startled into the realization that we know too little, too late.

I do not speak on behalf of the institution – the newspaper. Or the local radio or television station. I ask that you consider news and information, that public service function keeps us informed and connected to local opportunities and talent. The community stories that give us a sense of ourselves and our place in the world. The cultural narratives that shape our reality and sometimes allow us to see – and move — beyond them.

Let us consider using those funds from legal notices to train community storytellers, much like the writers of the Works Project Administration in a nationwide media corps. Use our underemployed talent, whether fresh out of school or displaced from the profession or newer community voices, to bolster civic news and information functions. Boost open government initiatives to create even greater transparency especially in communities that have lost their newspaper watchdog functions.

As Edward R. Murrow has said:

“We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small traction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure–exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.”

Murrow was referring to that new medium of television, back in 1958, and its growing programming diet designed to delude, amuse and insulate us. But his concerns and his solutions are as valid today, with the rise of the Internet and the loss of our civic commons.

There are some who will wring their hands and say that government shouldn’t be funding our news and information. They’ll point to the arguments over our public broadcasting. They’ll say that in this political and economic climate, it would be impossible to redirect these government monies to funding community news and information for a more informed citizenry. We need less government control, not more.

Let someone else pick up the slack, they’ll say, we don’t need newspapers now. We have the Internet.

They will ignore that government is already in our media. They will ignore history, that shows that this innovation called a free press was started with government licensing, preferential postal rates, even government-purchased printing presses in some locales. Our founders even insisted on a free press in the First Amendment to our Constitution.

They will ignore that we would not have the democracy we enjoy if we did not have a free press. They will believe that newspapers achieved their heights on their own and can figure their way out of their fast race to the bottom on their own, thank you very much.

But we’re talking about something more vital to our civic discourse than newspapers. We’re talking journalism, that vital community information function. One that serves our communities and its residents first, by whatever means necessary.

Community news and information for the people, by the people, of the people.

We must remain in conversation. We must stay informed and engaged. For we will grasp the enormity of what we have lost from journalism too late: Exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.

“There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference,” Murrow said in 1958. I would argue that we are waging it now.

The case for government investment in journalism, a manifesto