In response to the coronavirus pandemic, in March 2020 President Trump authorized a $2.2 trillion rescue package, which included direct payments of $1200 per adult plus $500 per child to millions of Americans, and more than $500 billion for large corporations, including the airline industry. Anticipating President Trump’s approval of the landmark Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, wrote that the United States urgently needs a stimulus package for journalism. “In the face of this pandemic,” Aaron wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, “the public needs good, economically secure journalists more than ever.” Aaron’s organization, Free Press, determined that US journalism needs $5 billion in immediate emergency funds, and his article presented a three-pronged plan for the recovery of journalism, including a doubling of federal funds for public media, direct support for newsrooms, and new investments in journalism.
Doubling the annual federal appropriations for public media over the next two years would require an additional $930 million. “This money isn’t for Downton Abbey reruns,” Aaron wrote. Instead, for example, it could be used to extend the successful model of using public media as an educational resource while students are home from school. In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District and the local PBS affiliate, KCET, have partnered “to offer instruction over the airwaves while kids are out of school, with separate channels focused on different ages,” Aaron noted. A congressional appropriation of at least $200 million could expand public media’s “Ready to Learn” initiative to cover all school-aged children. Any recovery package should also include direct support for daily and weekly newsrooms, including jobs at newspapers, community papers, and alt-weeklies committed to local news coverage. Just $625 million could help retain 25,000 newsroom jobs, Aaron reported. Congress could facilitate this investment by offering deferred or no-interest business loans and tax credits, such as Aaron’s proposed Emergency Jobs for Journalism Tax Credit, which would provide outlets with $40,000 per newsroom employee hired during 2020. COVID-19, Aaron wrote, provides an opportunity to “revive and reimagine journalism’s future.” Thus, as Aaron advocated, a future stimulus bill could include $2 billion for a “First Amendment Fund” that would support “new positions, outlets, and approaches to newsgathering.”
Arguing that a “resilient and community-centered media system” is necessary to get through the pandemic, Aaron concluded, “Now is the time to act. We need significant public investments in all corners of the economy, and journalism is no exception.”
In an article published by Jacobin, media scholar Victor Pickard argued that the current US media system “naturalizes the powerful and profitable while defunding adversarial journalism.” For a media system to be “democratically governed and accessible to all,” Pickard wrote, we must “stop grasping for a technological fix or a market panacea” and “acknowledge that no entrepreneurial solution lies just around the bend.” Instead we must seek non-market alternatives. A public option for journalism, establishing permanent support for a well-funded national public media service, “could help guarantee universal access to quality news,” he wrote.
Drawing on the late sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s model for building alternatives to capitalism, Pickard wrote that “the most surefire way to tame and erode commercial media is to create a truly publicly owned system.” A robust public media system would require an annual budget of approximately $30 billion, Pickard reported. “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,” he wrote. (Pickard’s Jacobin article appeared before Trump’s authorization of the CARES Act; the $30 billion necessary to create a truly public media system would cost less than 1.4 percent of the CARES Act expenditures.)
Without incessant commercial pressures, journalists could “practice the craft that led them to the profession in the first place.” This kind of journalism, Pickard wrote, “could devote unwavering attention to combatting social injustice,” laying bare the “social costs of policy failure and the structural roots of inequality.”
While corporate news outlets have reported the ongoing demise of newspapers and especially local news sources, they have rarely covered proposals such as Aaron’s and Pickard’s to revitalize journalism through public funding—and when they have, the coverage has tended to be slight or belittling. For example, among the very few establishment news articles to address Aaron’s piece, the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan offered a relatively tepid endorsement. Though corporate media have perhaps predictably afforded few positive mentions of publicly owned media, in May 2020 the Washington Post did run an editorial by Victor Pickard on the history of, and current potential for, municipal newspapers.
Craig Aaron, “Journalism Needs a Stimulus. Here’s What It Should Look Like,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 24, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/analysis/journalism-stimulus.php.
Victor Pickard, “We Need a Media System That Serves People’s Needs, Not Corporations,” Jacobin, January 27, 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/corporate-media-system-democracy.
Victor Pickard, “American Journalism is Dying. Its Survival Requires Public Funds,” The Guardian, February 19, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/19/american-journalism-press-publishing-mcclatchy.
Student Researcher: Veronica Vasquez (Diablo Valley College)
Faculty Advisor: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)