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10 July 2021

Public Municipal Journalism, a Proposal

I've been thinking about the role of news media in the growing partisan divide and social instability in the US over the last few years. I think it would be an oversimplification to claim that news media have caused these issues, but it seems clear that they at best failed to moderate them and at worse amplified them. Part of the issue undoubtedly is that journalism in the US is predominantly for-profit. We've had a public discussion recently about the problems that arise when we allow profit motives into other essential institutions, like education and healthcare, but we haven't yet addressed the same concerns with the press. The à la carte nature of journalism in the US has fragmented the national narrative to the point of near-collapse, and that fragmentation is largely the result of the capitalistic pursuit of niche markets, selling a branded story that resonates with a particular worldview or identity. This has been particularly disastrous for local newspapers. How might we correct this?

I'm reminded of the idea of the fourth estate. What if we reimagined a free press as being free not only of governmental control but also of capitalist manipulation? I can imagine news organizations that are chartered with very specific operating constraints. What if news media were cooperative firms, owned and controlled jointly by the journalists-workers and the communities they serve? What if they were funded by local millage or bond? What if journalists finally abandoned editorials and the op-ed page?

Across Western Europe, public news media are widely used and trusted sources of news. Most other advanced, industrialized nations have public journalism which serves as the preferred news source, is trusted more than private news media, and is trusted far more than distrusted. While there are populist and ideological divides, the divides are generally far smaller than you'd guess and do not reverse trust (Spain being an outlier). Regardless, we can certainly do better in the US.

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