Podcast / Tech Won’t Save Us / Feb 1, 2024

Victor Pickard on What’s Really Killing the News Media

On this episode of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, a discussion on the crisis in journalism.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

What’s Really Killing the News Media? w/ Victor Pickard | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of the Tech Won't Save Us podcast, Paris Marx is joined by Victor Pickard to discuss the continued layoffs in news media, and how they are symptomatic of a deeper, structural crisis in journalism.

Victor Pickard is Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at University of Pennsylvania. He’s also the author of Democracy Without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society.

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On this episode of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, Paris Marx is joined by Victor Pickard to discuss the continued layoffs in news media, and how they are symptomatic of a deeper, structural crisis in journalism.

Victor Pickard is Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at University of Pennsylvania. He’s also the author of Democracy Without Journalism?: Confronting the Misinformation Society.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Can Europe Chart Its Own Path on Tech? w/ tante | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of Tech Won't Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by tante to discuss why it’s hard for Europe to challenge the US and China on tech and why we should change how we think about innovation.

tante is a writer, speaker, and Luddite working on tech and its social impact.

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Paris Marx: Victor, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Victor Pickard: Thanks so much for having me, Paris.

Paris Marx: Really looking forward to the chat today. Obviously, people listening to this show will know that the media industry has been in a really difficult period — by that I mean news media, of course. For the past number of years we have heard a lot about layoffs in journalism, people losing their jobs, publications closing. And those stories have continued  into this year with major layoffs, already at the Los Angeles Times, at Time Magazine, at Business Insider. Not to mention the gutting of publications like Pitchfork and Sports Illustrated. Just to get us started, what are your immediate thoughts on what’s happening in this moment in news media?

Victor Pickard: Thanks, Paris. This is a doom and gloom scenario that we’re starting out with here. But my immediate reaction is, in some ways, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, this is just a continuation of what has been a downward death spiral for at least the last decade or more. So, in some ways, I’m not surprised. But even within that broader context, these latest numbers are pretty startling. We saw, just in last week, that the LA Times is cutting over 20% of its employees, 115 employees. Just a few weeks ago, The Washington Post eliminated almost 10% of their workforce, 240 positions, through buyouts. And these were two of the papers, especially The Washington Post until recently, was seen as one of the success stories coming out of the recent journalism crisis. So, this really should give us pause. It’s just another sobering reminder that the commercial model for journalism, especially local journalism — that journalism produced by metropolitan newspapers — is no longer financially sustainable. And I’m sure that’s going to be a recurring theme throughout our conversation today. 

But if I would add a third point to those two, which are more dismal, I would say as I often do, that any time we’re looking at this structural crisis, for journalism, we also, to use the old cliche, should see this as an opportunity to create structural reform and to imagine entirely different kinds of models. Again, I think that’ll be another theme that we’ll return to in this hour. So I always try to find a silver lining in the current age, but I do think we should pause and reflect on how bad things are. Just to put it into a bit of further context, there’s a great report that Penny Abernathy at Northwestern University has been putting out — now almost on a yearly basis because he has to update it — and the most recent numbers show that since 2005, the US newspaper industry has lost almost two thirds of its employees in a third of its newspapers. These are just such stunning, and staggeringly bad, numbers. We should keep in mind that it’s not like back in 2005, things were fantastic. So I would argue things were already pretty bad at that point. We’re really at a point of no return right now, and I think we need to start reckoning with that reality.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. The difficult thing for me is obviously I know people who are losing their jobs, which is terrible. But the other thing is seeing hundreds of jobs being lost, knowing how many jobs have already been lost over the past 10 years, 20 years. You just wonder how much deeper can actually go, this crisis of journalism and of news media? When you’re constantly losing more people, and it seems like, certainly, there are conversations around there being problems and the fact that we’re losing so many newspapers, and so many journalists, but the structural solutions don’t seem to be there. And of course, that’s why I wanted to have this conversation with you today. So, when we talk about this problem, when we talk about the reason why the news media is struggling so much to pay journalists, struggling so much to support its operations and to deliver what many would see as a public service, not just as a as a private good to the public. I feel like the narrative we often receive is: The internet happened and that cut into the revenues of the newspapers and of the media. And that is why nothing’s working, we need to blame the platform’s, basically. But in your book, I feel like the reason you give for this problem is much deeper than that, and looks at a much broader scope of what has happened. So, how would you identify the crisis that is actually happening in journalism and in news media right now?

Victor Pickard: That’s an excellent question, and we could probably spend the next hour, at least, drilling down into it. But you’re absolutely right. I tried to push back against this pretty lazy narrative that the internet is what killed journalism. Of course, there’s a grain of truth to that, which we can get to. But I really think that we need to historicize this using the US media system as our case study. Go back to the 1800s when the press first dramatically commercialized, when it became inordinately dependent on advertising revenue. And, historians can quibble over exactly when this happened, of course, it was a gradual process. But there was a structural transformation for when the US press system moved from what’s sometimes referred to as a partisan press model. It had a variety of revenue streams, including political parties, including individual people would pay for the newspapers, some advertising, which, at the time, was more like classified ads. But also tremendous subsidies, postal subsidies at that time, the postal system in the 1800s served as a newspaper delivery infrastructure. By today’s money, it amounted to billions of dollars of media subsidies to disseminate newspapers to far-flung communities across the country.

This was the business model until they became heavily commercialized and became a big business, in terms of drawing in tremendous advertising revenues. This really changed the nature of news content. But it also created this structural vulnerability, where up into the end of the last century, advertising made up something like 80% of newspaper revenues, sometimes even higher. And the rest came from subscriptions, and newsstand sales and the likes. So that’s where we really need to begin, this advertising revenue based business model. But also, the market structure of newspapers, where newspapers basically enjoyed monopoly positions in their given markets. And so that anyone who wanted to advertise had to go to the newspapers. So this tees us up for when the internet comes in, and blows up this model. But I really think that we need to begin with the argument that it was this over reliance, this extreme dependence, on advertising revenue, and indeed, this extreme commercialization. Which I think gets us to the capitalist logics that I’m increasingly trying to foreground in my analysis, I think that often gets overlooked. So, that then we have these narratives, these sort of technologically determinist narratives, that say: The internet came along and just killed journalism, and the platforms are the main culprits. Therefore, we just need to get more advertising revenue back to the publishers. That’s the narrative I’m trying to push back against.

Paris Marx: That’s an important narrative to challenge because I feel like a lot of the policy prescriptions for how we address this problem deal with that particular part of it, that framing. That it was Google and Facebook and the internet that took away the revenues of the media, so we just need to get Google and Facebook to give them back some of those revenues. If we look at what has been happening in Canada and Australia, for example — and the proposals in California and some other places — for how to try to get some more money back into the media and revive this. But you’re saying that, basically, the problem is not that the internet arrived, and the advertising revenue was eroded, but rather the commercial structures that predated that, that made them reliant on the advertising revenue to such a significant degree in the first place.

Victor Pickard: That’s exactly right. And, of course, we can throw in another villain into the mix, Craigslist, which single-handedly wiped out a major revenue source with free classified ads online. But again, I do think this misdiagnoses the core root of the problem, and therefore, it sets us off down the wrong path in terms of finding a true structural alternative to the failing commercial model. One thought exercise we could do is: What would happen if Facebook and Google simply disappeared tomorrow? Would all that digital advertising simply go back to the newspapers, to the publishers? That’s not how it would work; they’ve lost that monopolistic position. They’re never getting that advertising revenue back. Now, it’s not to say that Google and Facebook and other digital giants aren’t exacerbating the problem. And I do think we could find creative ways for where they’re contributing to a solution. But The Online News Act in the Australian news media bargaining code, and the Journalism Competition Preservation Act here, in the United States, have all been based on this template, on this analysis, that the big bad duopoly of Facebook and Google is the core root of this problem. So, if they just redistribute their ill-gotten digital advertising revenues back to the publishers — who themselves have been complicit in exacerbating this journalism crisis — then all will be fine.

I know some of my good friends and academics, and intellectuals that I highly respect are making the argument and it really deserves a little more respect than I’m giving it right now. They’re making the argument that: Look, maybe this isn’t going to solve the crisis, but at least it will get some money back to journalists. And I think the most generous thing you can say is that there might be this trickle down, because all the calculations that I’ve seen shows the money that would be given back to the publishers, from the platforms, would disproportionately go to the largest publishers. We’re talking the Murdochs in the States. It would go to commercial broadcasters, as well as like Sinclair Broadcasting. So, it really would not be going to the people who are actually doing journalism and often cuts out smaller and independent news outlets. Nonetheless, if I saw this as part of a broader, more ambitious project, a package, of policy interventions, then I might be more open to: Okay, maybe this does more good than harm. But that’s not the way it’s been discursively constructed here in policy debates in the US and beyond.

Paris Marx: Certainly not here in Canada, either. And I would just say, since you were talking about those codes, those policy prescriptions, from these governments. I’m also skeptical of what Canada brought forward, but as soon as Meta said: We are not following this law, that radicalized me in favor of it just to force these tech companies to abide by the rules that we were setting for them.

Victor Pickard: I could totally understand that. Facebook and Google are bad actors in this scenario, and they’re causing untold social harms around the world. So, I’m all for dinging them and going after them. But the way it gets framed, at least, especially here in the US policy discourse, is that this is the silver bullet; this is what will save journalism, and this is the main cause of all these recent layoffs. And that’s a dangerous argument to make, because it just completely diverts our attention from what we really should be focusing on. And that is to try to find non-market means of support for the journalism that democracy requires.

Paris Marx: I want to pick up on what you were saying, when you mentioned that a lot of this money would end up going to Sinclair Broadcasting, the Murdoch’s. All of these major media empires that have arisen, because I feel like that also plays into what you were talking about, about this commercial model, and the consolidation that has happened, especially in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Can you talk about how this commercialism is treating media as a private business, has resulted in this mass consolidation, and what that has actually meant for the journalism that people can expect in the way that news media operates?

Victor Pickard: I do think this is an important part of our structural analysis, and certainly should be included in the critique, although at a certain point I’m going to try to move us away from talking about ownership concentration, which, again, I don’t think is the core root. I keep wanting to go back to: It’s capitalism. But of course, we can’t just scream that and drop the mic. So, it is important that we tease this out a bit, and to go back to that historical narrative that I started a bit earlier. Once newspapers begin to commercialize and become highly profitable enterprises, you quickly saw a chain ownership model take root as early as the early 1900s. By the late 1900s, this was becoming the dominant model. Whereas you had these massive newspaper corporations that had bought up all these smaller, and typically family-owned newspapers. And I should pause here to say, there’s often a romanticization of the family-owned newspaper, that’s sometimes problematic. So oftentimes, these newspapers were owned by local elites. We can think of all kinds of terrible case studies of really poorly-owned, poorly-operated, family-owned newspapers, that basically disserved local communities. 

However, there usually it was at least some relationship to the local community. There was oftentimes some commitment to serving that community. When you had the rise of these newspaper chains, and this consolidation that you mentioned, now, we’re talking about absentee owners who are extremely profit-driven, prone to ruthless cost cutting measures. And I do think that is the story of the later decades of the 20th century. And then beyond that, we have private equity firms. Here, the poster child is Alden Global Capital, which is rightly named a vulture capitalist. Which swoops in and immediately begins dismantling the newspapers, selling it off for parts, selling off real estate, the parking lot, the building. And of course, laying off all the reporters themselves. This is another example of where many contemporary critics, rightly point this out as a major problem. They argue that the vulture capitalists are the core root of the problem. And again, I would say that these are opportunistic parasites that are settling into an already dying beast, I’m using the worst metaphors here. But you get the idea. This is late stage decay, and again, symptomatic of these deeper structural pathologies, namely, hypercapitalism that we need to draw our analysis to.

Paris Marx: That’s really well put and the private equity would not be moving in if there weren’t already structural issues that had gottem to the point where these businesses were open for these types of people to move in and be able to suck the last bit of profit that they can possibly ring from it. Usually, it’s distressed industries that these types of companies move into.

Victor Pickard: Exactly. Another way of putting it is that they are the last actors on the field that see any sort of profit potential in these dying newspapers. No one else wants to buy them, or I should say, almost no one else. Occasionally people with some political agendas want to buy them. But basically, it’s another sign of how there really is no commercial future for most kinds of journalism, especially local journalism. That, I would argue, needs to be our starting point in our analysis.

Paris Marx: Picking up on that point, I think one of the things that we clearly see in the media landscape right now or, just in society is that there is a decreasing trust of the media. Some people talk about that being fueled by misinformation and other people by political actors who are turning people against it. But I think that it’s fair to say that part of that is that news media, and that journalism, simply isn’t delivering the quality that people expected in the past. You can’t get this local newspaper that’s thick, and filled with all the stories that are going on in your community, in the way that you would in the past. And instead, you watch these cable news channels that are just constantly commenting on the horse race of the political cycle or something. So, what is the effect of these commercial pressures on the quality of the news and the journalism that we receive as a public? Especially as the actual business model has been falling apart because of the structural problems that you’ve been talking about.

Victor Pickard: Excellent question. As you might imagine, there are so many terrible, negative externalities as we might want to call them. But just downstream effects of this degraded product that we might refer to as our news media systems producing low quality news and information. It creates this vicious cycle where people are much less likely to pay for a degraded product. They’re not going to see it as an essential public service, which is what we should treat it or see it as, for any democratic society, that’s absolutely necessary. So, there’s this constant churn out of less and less actual news. And as you noted, in your question, especially for looking at cable news, but even if we’re looking at clickbait stories online, there’s really not much news or informational content in these stories. On cable television, there’s virtually no journalism actually happening. It really is just shouting heads on a screen, and so that’s where there’s a kind of paradox here. 

Because despite how acute the structure crisis is for the newspaper industry, most of our original reporting, and most of the original news and information that people are gleaning from — social media, or from whatever source — actually derives back to the beleaguered newspaper industry. So newspapers, even today serve as this informational theater for our entire news media ecosystem. I try to remind folks that isn’t really about nostalgia, for newspapers, or getting ink-stained fingers from wrestling through the broadsheets. It’s really about just making sure that journalism is being produced, that community information needs are being served. And it just so happens that those institutions are the last ones standing. I mean, public media, to some extent in the US —much more so in most other democratic countries — also serves this role and provides this necessary news and information. 

The one final point I’ll add to all this — and this also gets at some of the social harms that we’re talking about, because I sometimes get pushed back by a certain subfield among communication scholars — which is this idea, this argument that we’re so concerned about information, it’s assuming that news consumers, if we want to call them that, are just these rational actors that require information and if they’re not getting the information then democracy fails. And obviously, it’s not that. And newspapers also served this important cultural role, where they helped build community, helped build solidarity. 

I try to remind my friends on the left, that for all of our causes, newspapers are absolutely essential, or at least I want to say local journalism is absolutely essential. We all have such high stakes in the survival of local journalism. There’s so much data to show what we already intuitively know, that we all learn in school that democracy requires a free, and by implication, a functional press system. But now we have the data to show what happens to local communities when they lose their local newspapers. Sure enough, we see that they’re less likely to vote, less civically engaged, less likely to run for office. And yet we see higher levels of corruption, higher levels of extremism. So we know it’s bad. We’ve got to figure out structural alternatives to these failing commercial models.

Paris Marx: Just to add to what you’re saying, and I’m sure, probably a lot of listeners have had this experience as well. But I remember when I was younger, even in my early teens, we would regularly get the newspaper, like the daily newspaper delivery. And it would be this thick volume, that had multiple sections that had a lot on what was going on locally, whether in the city and the province, in the country. But it was this hefty thing that gave you a lot of information about what was happening in the world around you. And then last year, I had a book released and that newspaper, because it was my local newspaper, wanted to interview me and put it in the newspaper. And I had not seen a copy of this newspaper in a long time, because my family stopped getting it, I guess because it was not as useful as it once was. 

And then I went to the store to get it and it was this document that was maybe 15 pages, at most. And there was nothing in it. A lot of it was just stories that were brought in from the larger chain that now owns the newspaper. I was just shocked at the degree that that it had eroded. Along with that there were journalists that had lost their jobs, there was less journalism in general happening in the community. And it really made me think about what the impacts were just on my community where I grew up. And I can only imagine how that is replicated across so many communities across North America and the world. As this commercial model that so many of these newspapers relied on, has eroded. 

Victor Pickard: It’s a profound problem. What you’re describing, in some ways, that sounds like a halfway decent newspaper compared to US standards, anymore. I mean, increasingly, we have what are referred to as ghost newspapers, where they’re literally no humans left working there. And it’s just a mix of advertising and syndicated stories. So, we now have another great metaphor that I’m sure you’ve heard, and it’s been applied to Canada and many countries around the world. We have these growing news deserts, where you have vast regions, where communities have access to no local news media whatsoever. So, again we’re seeing the data come out on some of the effects of that. And it’s not a pretty sight. Rushing into the vaccuum are all manner of propagandistic outlets, people are increasingly turning to cable news and becoming more radicalized, usually in a right-wing extremist fashion. So, this is a profound problem and this is the direct result of a hyper-capitalistic media system where it’s no longer profitable to run these news organizations. 

One final point I’ll add to this very depressing scenario: you may have heard, I believe, last August when there was this Marion County Records, this small newspaper in Kansas, that was raided by local authorities. The police came in, shut it down, took out their equipment. It was this really tragic story. In fact, the owner of the newspaper ultimately died from this incident from a heart attack, at least indirectly died from it. And so it was really tragic, and it got a lot of attention. There was a public outcry against this across the country. But when you step back and think about how the market is essentially doing the same thing all the time to our newspapers — it’s summarily firing people, forcing journalists out onto the street, closing down newspapers. Yet we just shrug our shoulders, that it’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing that can be done. There’s, what my colleague Joe Turow refers to as, a sociology of resignation, that we just feel so disempowered to do anything about it. It is seen as an act of nature or an act of God, and that there’s no policy intervention that can be made. And that’s exactly the wrong way to look at it, it’s something that affects all of us, and we all should be engaged in trying to change this.

Paris Marx: I want to dig into that narrative point and that question of solutions. But before I do that, I want to go back to what you said about democracy. We can obviously have this conversation about: Oh, the news media as an industry is struggling, or people are losing their jobs. But there’s something bigger here, at least, we would imagine and hope. We live in democracy, so I think it’s fair to say that journalism is a really essential piece of what makes this a culture, and this society possible. So what are the broader societal and political ramifications of having so much of an over erosion in the quality of journalism and the availability of local journalism in particular, throughout our societies? What does that mean for the ability of our democracies to continue being vibrant and thriving and not giving way to the authoritarian pressures that we’ve certainly been seeing rising in many democratic countries?

Victor Pickard: To start with your last point, which in some ways is the is the scariest of them all, is that I really think it creates this fertile ground for fascism. We don’t have to say there’s a direct cause and effect relationship here. But I do think it provides a creates a context within which fascism thrives. That should get our attention from the get-go. But beyond that, there are all these subtle, negative effects that happen — whether there’s no longer local reporters that are covering the local school board, or city council, or the state legislature. And oftentimes, it’s the boring stuff; it’s the news stories that are not sexy. It’s not clickbait, we’re not going to pay for this stuff. And yet, we desperately need it. We need to have this information circulating, even if we’re not always consuming it. If our neighbors are consuming it, this is the whole notion of positive externalities, that as a society, we need a critical mass of people who are aware of these things going on, like the health of our local bridge, or what’s happening to our roads, and the railroads. Things that, again, are not going to really capture our attention. But, still, we need to know this stuff.  

It goes back to this notion that I mentioned earlier of community information needs, things around health and voting. I mean, those are both recent examples that we saw here in the United States where there was so much mis- and disinformation flowing about vaccines and where to vote, and can you mail in your ballot? And these are things that, ideally, local journalism is covering. So those are some of the problems, you have some of the more lofty ideals of things like the Fourth Estate is supposed to keep a watchful eye on the powerful and to create a forum for diverse views and voices. And I think that’s all very true, but it also needs to go where the silences are, journalists need to bear witness. And that’s another subtle negative effect that happens when you don’t have tournaments on the beat, especially for vulnerable communities who are often most at risk to, for example, State violence and police violence. 

If you’ve got journalists on the beat, it’s not going to solve all the problems, but at least it’s going to create some kind of safeguard, social safety net, for folks to to make sure there’s someone there to bear witness on this. And these are just a few — we can think of so many other problems. There’s a famous quip that sometimes attributed to the former FCC commissioner, Nicholas Johnson, who said: Whatever your first political issue is, your second one should be media reform, because you’re not going to get very far on your first political priority if you have a hostile media system. And so that’s another reminder for my friends on the left, if we’re worried about the climate crisis, we’re worried about ongoing wars and growing inequality, then we need to worry about local journalism as well.

Paris Marx: I guess on that point, as well, one of the things that stood out reading your book, and of course that I’ve observed over time, is that once the media does become eroded in the way that we have seen, it does create this opening for right-wing media with a very clear ideological agenda to move into that void. Because of the funding that is available from wealthy people who hold similar views to be able to move that forward in a way that say progressive or left-wing media doesn’t have access to those other forms of funding to create a well-resourced publication that can get this degree of traction. I found it interesting, because in your book, you go back through the history, and had the transformation from what you called the partisan press back in the 1800s, to a more commercial press already served a function of weeding out a lot of the working class newspapers and media, already. Just by moving to more of an advertising based model. Can you talk to us a bit about the political dimension of the type of media coverage that we receive with the different economic models that that go into how its funded and created?

Victor Pickard: Absolutely. There’s a couple different angles we can take this. One, you just reminded me when you were talking about going back to the battle days of when the early newspaper barons were pushing out what was then called yellow journalism. Really, that was just clickbait that was this excess of an over, hyper-commercialized media system where they were putting out these sensationalistic news stories. They were trivializing important issues, dramatizing other issues, and really causing a lot of social harm to where there was actually a public pushback, a grassroots pushback to some extent, that then led to establishing and various professional norms. The one that gets the most critique, of course, is the objectivity norm. But also the idea that news reporting should be fact-based, for example. I think we want to hold on to that one. These all came out of what’s now been naturalized as just professional journalism, really can be traced back to some of these economic shifts and this social turmoil around the normative role of newspapers in news media, in general, within a democratic society. 

That’s an important point to come back to, that that’s what we’re often fighting over, at least implicitly, in these discussions. What is the role of news media in a democratic society? But the other point is that I think something that gets too often overlooked is that there’s a market censorship that is driven by these capitalist logics that do a lot of ideological work. So, in many cases, and when I’m teaching this in class, you always want to push back against this cartoonish notion of this grand conspiracy, where there’s a smoky back room, and five guys figuring out what are we going to feed the masses and how are we going to keep them diverted from the real things that are going on? I mean, sometimes that does happen, we can point to cases like that throughout history, but usually, that doesn’t have to happen, because the market already does that ideological work. It strains out quite predictable patterns, and ensures that certain issues get covered or don’t get covered, or get covered in particular ways. 

So, there were always these patterns of omission and selection and emphasis that, over time, redound to the benefits of our political elites and our economic elites, and really disadvantages everyone else. Especially, there’s always a class and racial mapping here, what I think of as informational redlining. Poor and communities of color are disproportionately harmed by this media system, they’re not getting access to news information; their stories are not being heard; they don’t engage in media. This has always been the case, and that’s, again, where I think it’s so important to show that these are not new problems. The internet did not just cause this. This isn’t just Facebook’s fault, or Meta, sorry. So, it’s really something that we need — and I’ve become a broken record on this — but we need to trace back to the political economy, to the core structural problems that are driving so much of this. And that’s where we need to begin, to figure out how do we create new systems and new structures that actually serve democracy?

Paris Marx: Picking up on that point about the market censorship that occurs, one of the things that you draw attention to in the book is how there are these kind of libertarian ideas about the press and about speech in American society, but often how we talk about journalism even beyond that, that limit what we think that the possibilities of policy solutions might be. Can you talk to us a bit about how those libertarian ideas are formulated, and how they have become very influential across society when we think about how the media operates, how it should operate, and the role that the government should have in relation to it?

Victor Pickard: That’s such a major impediment to having even healthy conversations around these issues. There are these discursive blocks on what we can talk about, and largely because libertarians — and in here I would characterize them or use the modifier, I used to call them corporate libertarians, just market libertarians, market fundamentalists, whatever you want to call them — their point of view has become so naturalized that they’ve been able to capture the discourse in such a way that they don’t even have to really defend their positions anymore. And so it’s always instructive to go back historically to when these debates weren’t quite as settled. In my first book I really looked at one of these moments in the 30s and 40s, where there really was this clash of paradigms between a more market libertarian framework, and what I would probably think of as a social democratic framework here in the United States — the latter one being more aligned with the New Deal project.  

It actually had a moment where it was ascendant. It was not foreordained that the US would go down such a libertarian path. And we could have had a much more public-oriented media system compared to the one that we inherited here in the United States. But what the libertarians have been able to do is not only naturalize this hyper-capitalistic media system, and to assume that the market is always the best arbiter of what our media should look like, but they were also able to capture the First Amendment, something that we’re very proud of here in the United States, that enshrines our freedom of press and freedom of speech. They were able to weaponize it in a way to where any sort of intervention into, especially the media marketplace, is seen as a illegitimate foray into what really is the natural order of things, like the government should never get involved? 

Well, of course, that’s a libertarian fantasy. The government is always involved. The question is: How should it be involved? And, should it be serving our interests, and democratic societies interest? Or should it be serving the handful of wealthy, white men? And typically the latter is what its been doing for many decades now. To where our entire regulatory apparatus, the Federal Communications Commission, in particular, is sort of a textbook case of regulatory capture. The market libertarians have really been able to dominate these discussions and make it seem like there was no alternative. This kind of capitalist realism has settled in and that’s some of the discursive and ideological work that we have to undo, before we can really begin to imagine a truly democratic media system.

Paris Marx: When I was reading this in the book, I felt that there were a lot of overlaps between what you talked about in relation to these libertarian ideas around the media and the free press, and also what we hear around technology. Where there are these very clear ideas around the commercial nature of technology and how there can’t be a public alternative or any public solution. And that if the government tries to regulate, then all of a sudden, if it tries to regulate social media companies or something like that, then that’s a breach of people’s freedom of speech, because they might not be able to post whatever they want on these platforms or things like that. I wonder if you see these libertarian ideas, that have become so ascendant and that have affected media and technology being related in any particular ways, and having any kind of historical connections?

Victor Pickard: Absolutely. Oftentimes, discussions around the future of the internet, and the future of journalism are conducted as two separate discursive spheres. I think, if not in the same sentence, they should at least be in the same paragraph. We should be talking about it all; these are all intertwined. When I’m thinking about this utopian future that I envision, for our media system, it’s really talking about journalism, and access to broadband internet. This is one in the same conversation. But certainly in some ways, it becomes even more glaring when we talk about what’s happened to the internet here in the United States. To use one example, and as I’m sure you know — and I know that you had Ben Tarnoff on the show not too terribly long ago, and he really nailed this in his last book — but basically, we have what my colleagues and I refer to as a broadband cartel here in the US that provides most of our internet services. So, you see these technological determinants, the very much libertarian arguments that there’s no role for regulation in the provision of broadband services.

That is actually a radical break from telecommunications, in how that sector developed during the United States. There was always at least a public interest requirement. You couldn’t redline communities; you couldn’t discriminate against particular groups. There was actually rate regulation, which now you are not allowed to even utter that phrase in the American public policy discourse! It’s like our current FCC will bend over backwards to say: We will never regulate rates. And that should go along with any sort of telecommunications service. So, that’s maybe a little bit tangential from what you’re getting at. But I would argue that this libertarian framework has very much shaped how technology — and of course, you know better than than anyone — whenever we’re talking about this Silicon Valley ethos of what the internet should look like, how did we get to this place where we have these monstrosities, this came directly out of this kind of techno-libertarian orientation and we’re all much for the worst because of it.

Paris Marx: One of the things that stood out to me reading the book was how the 1996 Telecommunications Act — which, of course, was central to setting a lot of the groundwork for Internet regulations and how the internet is treated by the American federal government — was also a bill that contained a lot of further deregulatory measures or re-regulatory in favor of corporations that also changed the media and news media landscape as well to take some of the few remaining restrictions, or protections we might say, away so that they could continue to consolidate and entrench this commercial model.

Victor Pickard: You’re absolutely right. The Telecom Act was a real tragedy in so many ways. But ironically, as you’re noting, it arguably did the most damage, or as much damage, with our broadcast media because threw out caps on how many stations one corporation can own. So, we immediately ended up with these giant media conglomerates, like Clear Channel owned hundreds and hundreds of radio stations across the country. And immediately, this is where media ownership really does matter. It immediately began firing local broadcasters. Local journalists had less local culture on the stations and really became this cookie cutter format that was meant to just maximize, again, advertising revenues and profits. So, this is where that logic takes us if we don’t place these regulatory safeguards.  

There’s an argument to be had, I just had this argument the other day with some friends, who, whenever we’re looking at the role of the regulatory state, how much can regulation do really? I’m certainly not willing to throw it all out. But I do think a regulatory approach to some of these predictable social harms will only get us so far. I think, again, points to this argument that we need structural alternatives, where as long as this is going to be under a capitalist system, it’s fairly predictable. We’re going to see a tendency towards monopoly or at least oligopolies. And it’s going to affect the content that we can access in our media system. So, a lot of problems stemming from all this.

Paris Marx: Talking about ways to address this, and I’m going to get into the broader question of public media in just a second. But I feel like one of the narratives that we’ve had in the past few years is: Okay, the traditional media industry is struggling, but we have these digital media startups that are taking off, and they are going to revolutionize everything, and really address this problem by delivering news in a different way that’s more oriented toward the internet and the way that we do things now. Then I feel like more recently, we’ve also had this slightly different argument where the the Substack models and the subscription models to independent publications have been growing. And we’ve been getting thisvsomewhat similar argument where: Okay, maybe it’s not the digital news startups that are getting all this venture capital money or whatnot in order to grow, but rather, it’s going to be these independent publications that get these individual subscribers. And that is going to fill these voids that we have in the news media. I wonder what you make of those arguments that these are the ways that we’re going to address this problem, without needing government intervention?

Victor Pickard: Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m pretty skeptical of those kinds of proposals. I mean, it’s obviously a very neoliberal approach, this idea that we have these individual talents out there, that we just need to give them their platforms, and that individuals are going to pay for this content. We have so much data now to show that very few people end up paying and those who do tend to be whiter and wealthier households, and it just disenfranchises people. Now, that doesn’t mean there’s not a place for some of these types of media. But if we’re beginning from the premise that there are certain information needs, and other needs that democratic societies require from their information communication systems, then this simply is not a systemic fix to these very deep structural problems.  

I feel like this is also part of the libertarian approach to all these problems that don’t see a role for policy intervention, don’t see these as collective action problems, that society must grapple with. And instead, we’re going to find some new app, some new whiz bang business model or these amazing saviors. I am cautiously optimistic being in these debates for many years now, there has been some progress, I don’t have to argue over some of the same things I used to have to argue on. So I actually tend to be fairly, weirdly optimistic at the end of the day about all this. But certainly, unfortunately, most of the proposals that are being brought forth today are still not penetrating to the structural roots of these problems before us.

Paris Marx: I agree with what you’re saying. Obviously, there are journalists who are trying to do what they can in the media ecosystem available to them. And I think that makes complete sense. There have been some cool independent publications launched in the past year, some people who’ve been on the show, of course. But that’s not a solution to these broader structural problems in the media industry, if we want journalism that is actually going to provide the local news that people need. The investigative journalism that people need, the things that are going to give people a real picture of what is going on in their communities, in their wider society. And so to that point, we’ve been talking a lot about public media, without actually digging into it. What would a public media system look like and how does this start to address some of these crises that we’ve been talking about through the course of this conversation?

Victor Pickard: I’m so glad you’re raising this question. Oftentimes, in these discussions, we never quite get to the ‘what’s to be done’ part of the entertainment hours. So, public media is an important starting point. I want to say from the beginning, though, that oftentimes, especially in the US context, when people hear me say public media, they immediately think NPR, PBS, and that’s not where I’m going with this. That’s not how I think we should be looking at this public media potential. It’s rather than if we agree that the problems afflicting journalism and our media system writ large today stem from these capitalistic logics — these profit imperatives, and that is deeply systemic, and it’s a structural problem — we need to find structural alternatives. We need to create a system that’s not so reliant on these market mechanisms. So, that takes us to either a nonprofit model or a public media model. 

The nonprofit model here in the US, we’re going through what seems like a new golden age of nonprofit experimentation, and there’s some fantastic stuff going on. I think we can simultaneously celebrate that and also be crystal clear that that is not a systemic fix. That we can’t rely on private capital for this, this is not going to deal with the news deserts problem. It’s only going to be a public media system that can be dedicated to a universal service mission. That’s why I suggest that that’s where we begin. The system that we have here in the US is really a misnomer to even call it public media, it’s really a hybrid system. It gets much of its funding from private capital, from corporations. So we don’t have a truly public system here. Nonetheless, I think in the US, we can look at public broadcasting — along with public post offices, public libraries — we can imagine and see this public infrastructure that can be leveraged to create an entirely alternative media system. 

In most other democratic countries, they already have a stronger robust public broadcasting system. The CBC puts ours to shame. You’ve probably seen the graphs and I think I have one in my book that shows that the US is almost literally off the chart for how little we allocate towards our public broadcasting system. It might be just a tad bit more this coming year, but for many years, it comes out to about $1.40 per person per year. Compare that to the Brits are paying about $100 per year for the BBC. The Nordic countries are paying much more than that. And this also, not surprisingly, correlates with stronger democracies. The US is now considered a flawed democracy. One element of the libertarian framework that we didn’t mention earlier is that there’s always this assumption that as soon as a government gets involved, it’s a slippery slope towards totalitarianism. And I think we have so much evidence to undercut those claims. So, long way of saying that I do think we should begin looking at our public systems, our already existing public systems, and then think about how do we expand, repurpose, restructure those, and they can rise to these challenges and guarantee that all members of society have, not only access to news and information, but are also able to create their own media and tell their own stories?

Paris Marx: It’s a really good point. It’s interesting that you bring up Canada. Because up here, obviously we can look down and see the lack of public media, or relative lack of public media in the United States. But then we look across the sea to Europe, for example, and see that Canada only spends about $30 per person, I think, it is on public media compared to, as you say, the much higher numbers in many European countries. And it’s clear that so much more can be done. But even though we have large public broadcaster, like the CBC, these libertarian narratives that you’re talking about around the threat that public funding for media presents is still very present. We’ve been having a lot of debates in the past few years around the funding private media, with journalist subsidies, and of course, through the Online News Act that you were talking about, where we get Google and Facebook to pay the media. But there’s still really strong arguments being made in society that if the government does public funding for media, then that threatens the objectivity of all of the media. Not just arguments coming from the right-wing, which is quite concerning for me because you would think that having a large public broadcaster you would see that does not distort the media ecosystem or the ability of the press to hold power to account.

Victor Pickard: You’re absolutely right. Of course, this comes up invariably in all these discussions. It often serves as a conversation stopper. As soon as you let public subsidies get involved, public media subsidies, basically the media will become a mouthpiece for the state. And we have so much evidence to cut against this. We can look at so many case studies around the world where a robust public media system is, if anything, enriching democracy. There’s also growing bodies of evidence to show that countries that have stronger public media systems also have less extremism, higher levels of political knowledge. Now, again, we don’t need to say this is going to solve all of our problems. But I think certainly in the context of crumbling print media industry — growing news deserts, growing monopoly power in the media institutions that remain — we need to have a reliable system that’s dedicated to public service journalism. 

That isn’t simply trying to make a profit, that’s actually trying to enrich discourses and make sure that all members of society are well informed. But again, beyond that, too, and this gets to the second part of what I think should be our grand proposal for change. It’s really a two-pronged approach. Step one is to decommercialize our media system. The step two needs to be to radically democratize it. And I think this gets into some of the critiques of, say the BBC, which tends to be very elitist. My British friends have beaten out of me any sort of romanticism that I may have once had towards the BBC, and similarly towards the CBC. I mean, when I listen to your programs I’m just like: I wish we had your problems. We have nothing like this in the US. 

But nonetheless, I think there’s a legitimate critique that’s leveled, especially in the BBC case, where it’s an establishment media institution. It tends to privilege the status quo. It’s not adequately diverse, and so there’s a fix. This can be fixed. We can structurally remodel it so that more people are making decisions, and then that governance is brought down to local levels. That’s what I call for in all of my work is that, we really need to make sure that these public media centers — this is the getting into my utopian plan — but basically, that every community across the country should have this new anchor, or institution, I’m calling a public media center that is federally guaranteed, but locally owned and controlled. 

There are various schemes that we could deploy to make all of this work. We could have elections for local media bureaus, or we could have it randomly selected like we do for jury duty. But we can make sure that governance is devolved to the local level, and that those newsrooms not only look like the communities that they serve, but are actually owned and governed and operated by those members of the community. So there are problems with this model as well. But I think we can start imagining a different system that’s not driven by these profit imperatives, that does not rise and fall with market fluctuations, and actually guarantees a baseline level of news and information for all members of society.

Paris Marx: I’m such a big fan of reinvesting in public infrastructure, like the post office in order to have it provide other public goods that we basically want our governments to be able to provide to make our societies better, more thriving, richer, what have you. I wonder, as a final question, I guess, how do you see this form of public subsidy working in practice? How does this actually reach journalists or media publications? Do you think that there would be restrictions on the amount of this funding that for profit media institutions would be able to receive? And do you think that there needs to be consideration of how to ensure that this funding doesn’t go into right-wing organizations that we’ve seen popping up in recent years that aren’t really committed to journalism, but more to particular ideological pursuits and things like that?

Victor Pickard: That’s an excellent and daunting question. There’s a couple of pieces to it there that I’ll quickly try to tease out a bit. So, along with preventing this new public media system from becoming captured by the state, the second question that always comes up is how do you pay for it? And I’d say the third one is how do you make sure that people actually engage with it? So the second and third one are part of the same, or at least my answer would address both of them, which is that, first of all, we have to make sure that this money is completely firewalled, against any kind of state meddling. So there’s a federal guarantee that makes sure that the money is there. It has to be some kind of trust that’s not tied to these annual, or biannual, appropriations. Which is the current system we have this US, which is just a terrible system, and opens the door to all kinds of political interference. 

So, the money has to be there, then it has to be devolved. In the US so it’d be devolved to state and local levels. There are various formulas we can use to make sure, for example, every county gets a certain amount of money. But as soon as we begin devolving that money, we need to make sure that state and local communities are involved in the allocation. There’s some precedent for this sometimes block grants are mentioned, I don’t think that’s the best example. But I look to something that the LBJ administration did in the 60s, which had these community action programs for their anti-poverty measures where the money would go to these local communities. But then members of the community had to be involved in allocating the money. So I think that’s one way of doing it.

A different scheme that in some ways is even more bottom-up and grassroots driven is proposed by my friend and mentor, Robert McChesney. It’s called the local journalism initiative, which is also the name of the program that you all have in Canada, but this is a different kind of program, whereby people would actually vote on how their money gets allocated. So again, every county gets a certain amount of money, but then people get to vote on their top three choices of where that money goes. Now, to your last point about how do we make sure that this money never funds right-wing news outlets, I mean, in some ways, we do have to roll the dice with these universal service programs, I do think that there are structural safeguards we can put into place to make sure that certain ethical guidelines are followed to get the money. But we want to make sure they don’t fall into the hands of QAnon and conspiracist or whatever.

So we want to work out a few of these details. But some of these details, I think, intentionally should be left open for local communities to work out. I don’t think we should have this all figured out. First of all, it’s going to require a lot of experimentation. But I don’t think we should have a blueprint that we just slapped down from up on high and say: This is how it’s going to go. This really also has to be from the ground up. We need to supply the resources that are necessary for all these flowers to bloom. But I do think this needs to be a community driven initiative. And I think that’s how we can create a true structural alternative that actually serves democracy.

Paris Marx: That makes a lot of sense. Obviously, the media and journalism is in a really tough place right now, as we’ve been seeing in recent weeks with these stories. But it’s been great to speak with you, Victor, to learn a bit more about the roots of these problems, and how we might think about actually addressing them in a sustainable way, that’s good for democracy and good for the journalism that we expect. So thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.

Victor Pickard: Thank you, Paris. It’s so great talking to you. Let’s do it again sometime.

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Paris Marx

Paris Marx is a tech critic and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. He writes the Disconnect newsletter and is the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.

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