Local Journalism Sustainability Act

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This essay is on Wikiversity to encourage a wide discussion of the issues it raises moderated by the Wikimedia rules that invite contributors to “be bold but not reckless,” contributing revisions written from a neutral point of view, citing credible sources -- and raising other questions and concerns on the associated '“Discuss”' page.

This Wikiversity article was created to support a discussion of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. As of 2020-10-08 this article includes a brief discussion of the bill followed by a transcript of the forum and a video.

The forum began with the 2:13 (m:ss) video of comments from Maassen. It was followed by a live discussion with Dr. Dean Baker, a co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and an an advocate for citizen-directed subsidies for media. This was followed by recorded comments on these topics by Penelope Abernathy and John Caputo. Professor Abernathy holds the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has written several recent commentaries on the crisis of local journalism and how that threatens democracy. Dr. Caputo is Professor Emeritus & Walter Ong Scholar at Gonzaga University and founder of their Master’s Program in Communication and Leadership Studies. He is also a founder of the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.[1]

An audio excerpt was broadcasted 2020-10-08, 19:00 - 20:00 Central US time, on 90.1 FM, KKFI.org, Kansas City Community Radio.

The Bill[edit | edit source]

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act is a bipartisan bill in the United States House of Representatives introduced 2020-07-16 that would provide tax credits to three groups of people to support local journalism:

  1. Individual subscribers would get a tax credit of 80 percent of their outlay for subscriptions to local newspapers (print or online) the first year after the law becomes is enacted and 50 percent for the next four years up to a total of $250.
  2. Local newspapers would get credits for employment taxes they would otherwise have to pay for hiring journalists up to $12,500 per calendar quarter ($50,000 per year). And
  3. Small businesses would get a tax credit of up to $5,000 for 80 percent of what they spend of advertising with local media (local newspapers or broadcast stations) the first year after the law is enacted and up to $2,500 for 50 percent for such local advertising for another four years.

The Forum[edit | edit source]

Video from a virtual forum, 2020-10-03, on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act and related issues.
This is a rush transcript of a video created 2020-09-28 and may not be in its final form. Anyone finding errors or confusing statements is invited to correct them here or raise them in the accompanying "Discuss" page or add updates in notes and / or subsequent sections.

Intro[edit | edit source]

Spencer Graves 00:00

Well, I want to thank you all for joining. Welcome to this forum on the "Local Journalism Sustainability Act, concerns and opportunities", co-sponsored by 90.1 FM, KKFI, Kansas City Community Radio, also the Climate Council of Greater Kansas City,[2] and Friends of Community Media.[3]

So we first have a very brief recorded comment on it from Mark Maassen,[4] who's the executive director of the Missouri Press Association.[5] This will be followed by a live interview with Dr. Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Baker has publications recommending citizen-direct and subsidies for media.

This will be followed by recordings[6] with Penelope Abernathy and John Caputo.[7] Abernathy holds the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's written a number of recent commentaries on the crisis of local journalism and how that threatens democracy. Dr. Caputo is Professor Emeritus and Walter Ong scholar at Gonzaga University and founder of their master's program in Communications and Leadership Studies. He is also the founder of the North West Alliance for Responsible media.

Let us now hear from Mark Maassen.

Mark Maassen, Missouri Press Association[edit | edit source]

Mark Maassen, Executive Director of the Missouri Press Association, discusses the Local Journalism Sustainability Act on 2020-09-28

Mark Maassen 01:29

I am Mark Maassen with the Missouri Press Association. And I'm here today to talk about the Local Government Sustainability Act. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused economic damage across every sector. Local newspapers already faced economic challenges before the pandemic, and the climate has worsened as publishers are experiencing a 30 to 50% drop in advertising revenues due to business closures. Nearly 36,000 employees and newspapers have been laid off, furloughed, or have had their pay reduced during this crisis. Americans are relying on local news now more than ever. To assure that newspapers are around to cover this and future crises, Congress must take action to extend the runway for newspapers so that they can implement sustainable business models around digital subscriptions and advertising revenue.

Mark Maassen 02:23

There are three main credits that we're asking for. One is a credit for advertising in local media. This will help main street businesses reach their customers with information about reopenings and will get their local economies moving again.

Mark Maassen 02:39

The second credit is for local newspaper subscriptions. This means that a credit will be provided to every taxpayer for up to $250 a year to spend on subscriptions with local news organizations.

Mark Maassen 02:53

The third credit is to hire good journalists: a payroll credit that allows us for hiring the most professional journalists available.

Mark Maassen 03:01

There are other organizations within the newspaper industry that are also supporting this act. Two of them that come to mind are News Media Alliance[8] and America's Newspapers.[9]

Mark Maassen 03:10

But the Missouri Press Association represents 229 newspapers in this state, approximately 99.5% of all newspapers in the state. We have been around for 154 years. This legislation will help ensure that these newspapers will continue to serve as watchdogs for their communities, something that is needed at this time.

Mark Maassen 03:33

I strongly recommend that you contact your senators and / or members of your Congress in support of this legislation. Thank you

Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research[edit | edit source]

Spencer Graves 03:42

Next, let's hear from Dr. Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of publications recommending citizen-directed subsidies for media. Dr. Baker, please fill important gaps that I missed in your bio and then summarize your primary thoughts on these issues.

Dean Baker 04:04

Okay, important gaps, I don't want to give you a long story. Yeah, I founded the Center for Economic and Policy Research back in '99. And I'll just tell you, one of the books I wrote that anyone could just download on the web for free: Rigged: How globalization and the rules to the modern economy were structured to make the rich richer.[10]

Tax credits for creative work[edit | edit source]

Dean Baker 04:25

And the idea that I'm going to talk about here, tax credit system for creative work actually appears in there. It's one of the items in chapter five of the book. So if anyone's interested, they can read more about it. I've written in other places as well, but that's a good place to look.

Dean Baker 04:39

Anyhow, so I would take this a little bit different direction than the proposal you just heard. So what I would advocate for is a tax credit. And we can argue about the size, but let's say it's $100 per person. And it would be for creative work more generally.

Dean Baker 04:56

So the idea would be: It's not just newspapers. It'd be for writing. It'd be for music, for movies, creative work more generally.

Dean Baker 05:03

The other part is there's a quid pro quo here: If you take advantage of the tax credit, you don't have copyright protection.

Democracy vouchers[edit | edit source]

Dean Baker 05:11

So I'll come back to both of these issues. And just if people want to wrap their heads around this and it sounds strange to them, let me give you two models, one of which maybe you aren't familiar with and you should be. The other one everyone is at least somewhat familiar with. The first one is simply the Seattle democracy vouchers.[11] This is something this city of Seattle started I think about four or five years ago, where every person, every registered voter in the city is entitled to a voucher, I believe it's $75, I wouldn't absolutely swear by that. They might have changed it. But $75 to support the candidate or -dates of their choice in an election.

Dean Baker 05:48

And in order to be eligible for it, candidates have to limit what they collect. They can't take large contributions. There's a limit to other contributions they can get. So candidates are limited if they choose to be eligible for that system.

Dean Baker 06:01

But the point is that it gives everyone a voice. And, you know, that's how I like to look at this. Because, you know, we do have a problem with democracy. I'm not criticizing that view. But you know, we have the you know, the very rich, the Koch brothers, you know, other very rich people have enormous say in our elections. Huge, huge problem. I don't think we have realistic ways, as long as we have the inequalities in income and wealth in this country, to keep those people from having their say.

Dean Baker 06:27

I think what's important is to make sure all of us have some say. So candidates that, you know, don't appeal to the rich, maybe they won't have as much money as the candidates that do. But if everyone has a voucher, you know, like the Seattle one, that gets him in the game. So that's how I'm thinking about that.

Charitable deductions[edit | edit source]

Dean Baker 06:43

The other model that people will be familiar with is the charitable deduction on your income taxes. I realized that mostly goes to rich people these days. But in any case, the way it stands now, let's say I'm a rich person, and I decide there's this or that charity, like I like, and I want give them a million dollars. Well, I get to do that. And then I write that off against my taxes. And currently, the tax rate for high income people, I think it's 37.6; I won't swear by the point six. But in any case, what that means is that I get over $370,000 back from the IRS. So in effect, the IRS, the government is paying the $370,000 to give that money to, you know, whether it's a church, a religious organization, something that distributes food to the poor, whatever it might be, the IRS is paying, the government's paying me for that.

Dean Baker 07:32

So that's the other model, you know, because when people are saying, "How can you do this?" How can you regulate what we already do, that we already do it? We do it for a different purpose, or somewhat different purpose. But we do do it. So the idea that this is totally alien, no, it's not.

Not just newspapers[edit | edit source]

Dean Baker 07:45

Okay, so a little bit about, you know, why I'm looking for creative work more generally, rather than just saying the newspapers. Well, first off, I love newspapers. So I'm not knocking, you know, what we just heard, and I'm a big fan of newspapers. I've had subscriptions to many for years and years, and probably will 'til I'm dead.

Dean Baker 08:02

But realistically, we're just talking about the politics of this. We've had a president running around the country yelling "fake news, fake news, fake news" for four years.

Dean Baker 08:10

And like it or not, a lot of people believe that. You know, long and short, a lot of people aren't very fond of newspapers, you know.

Dean Baker 08:17

So if you say, hey, let's have this tax credit: We're going to take your tax dollars and give them tonewspapers: Good luck. I just don't think that will get very far.

Dean Baker 08:26

So I think we have to think more broadly. So that's one issue. We just, you know, recognizing where we are now, and I understand, no one thinks this is passing tomorrow. But you know, in a reasonable timeframe, we have a lot to overcome if we're saying we're gonna take tax dollars and give them to existing newspapers.

Dean Baker 08:43

The other point is, you know, apart from the politics, that there is a philosophical issue. Okay. You know, we have a lot of good papers, I like them. But why should the Cleveland Plain Dealer, why should the St. Louis Post Dispatch, why should they get money and not, you know, this guy over here, a woman over there? They have this great idea: They want to start a new newspaper. How do they get into the game, in other words? It's not -- that's a problem, I'd just say. I mean, it's not it's not obvious that you'd say, okay, because you've been there, you get the money.

Dean Baker 09:11

You want to start up, you know, you have new ideas, new way to report things. That I think it's really problematic, just from a philosophical standpoint. So if we just ignored the politics, we can do whatever we want. Someone said why would you give preference just because they've been there? And I won't have a good answer to that. I don't think there is a good answer.

Dean Baker 09:32

The third issue is, how do you set boundaries? So you know, we're talking newspapers today: Practical matter, probably most of these are not going to be the old fashioned print newspapers. And even if some people think they are still printed out, and you know, some people get them like they, you know, the old fashioned way -- not to knock it, I like it that way.

Dean Baker 09:50

But, you know, it's gonna be on the internet. So then where do you set the boundaries for what counts as a newspaper? Okay, so if we're talking about the old physical newspapers, I guess we could say, "Okay, here's what newspaper looks like." It's on the web. So you know, someone writes a long investigative piece. Is that part of a newspaper? Someone writes something, you know, a lot of our newspapers include cartoons. You know, some of them have fictional pieces.

Dean Baker 10:16

Where do you draw the boundaries? Increasingly, newspapers, you know, the New York Times, I suspect most papers do this now, at least the major ones, they have video sections.

Dean Baker 10:24

So where are we going to draw the boundaries there? And, you know, again, that that might sound stupid, but I think if you try to take it seriously, it actually could be a really big problem. Because if someone does mostly video clips or audio clips, you know, are we going to say, "Oh, no, that can't qualify as a newspaper?" We have to figure out how you draw the boundaries.

Dean Baker 10:43

I'm not going to say it's impossible. But I think that's at least a very, very difficult problem, and we shouldn't pooh-pooh it.

Dean Baker 10:48

The last point is simply, you know, the problem, the internet, we know, I mean, the points that, you know, advertising has been crushed for newspapers. And you know, some of that was, of course -- the pandemic made it worse. But this was pre-pandemic. Anyway, you know, the story of layoff in newspapers didn't start with, you know, the pandemic. So this has been an ongoing problem.

Dean Baker 11:08

Well, the internet also has made it very difficult for other types of creative work, most obviously recorded music: that the money being spent on recorded music has just plummeted. So if you look at okay, what about recording artists they've been, they've been plummeted. They've been devastated by the internet as well. So it's not just newspapers. It's been creative work more generally.

Dean Baker 11:30

So it strikes me, you know, again, I think the politics work this way. Because we want a situation where everyone could say, oh, okay, we're getting our hundred dollar credit. I mean, it's coming out of taxes, but we're getting $100 credit, we're getting something for it.

Dean Baker 11:42

So, you know, if you take the group of people that doesn't listen to music, doesn't read books, doesn't watch movies, doesn't read a newspaper. That's a pretty small group.

Dean Baker 11:53

So if we have something there for pretty much everyone, I think it makes it a much more palatable proposition politically. So that's my logic in expanding the list of beneficiaries beyond just newspapers.

Copyrights[edit | edit source]

Dean Baker 12:08

So let me get to the second part. So copyrights: We want two main arguments here. First off, we want people to get what they're paying for, in other words. So, you know, if we go the route of saying, okay, you know, you get the credit.

Dean Baker 12:24

And sure, then go ahead and put up a paywall. I think a lot of people go, Well, I already had that, you know, why? What's the logic here? So what strikes me is that, we say, okay, you know, you get the credit. If you're a beneficiary of the credit, then you don't have copyright, you know. That it's open for everyone. So if we have a newspaper, and they're doing good investigative work, everyone could see it. You don't have to then turn around and also pay for a subscription or pay for an article or whatever it might be. It's on the web. Everyone can see it. Everyone could benefit from it.

Dean Baker 13:00

The second point about that is, you know, just again, a practical political matter. We pay you once. We don't pay you twice. I mean, people you know, I talked to people about copyrighting. They look at me strangely. Oh, well, that's my copyright.

Dean Baker 13:14

Well, copyright is something government gives you. It's a government policy. And it's just kind of bizarre how, you know -- I'm not just grabbing someone off the bus.

Dean Baker 13:22

I mean, they're typically like economists or policy type people. I'm saying, you know, it's a government policy. You could argue for it as a government policy, but it's very explicitly a government policy.

Dean Baker 13:31

I don't know how many times I've had people go, "Oh, well, it's in the Constitution." Did you read the constitution? It says very explicitly, it's Article I, Section 8, Clause 8[12] powers of Congress. It's alongside power to tax, power to declare war. It's not the bill of rights. It quite explicitly says in order to advance the useful arts and sciences.[13]

Dean Baker 13:53

It's a public purpose. Okay, so it's, you know, again, we can argue about the policy, but it is a policy.

Dean Baker 13:59

So to my mind, it's very reasonable to say, okay, we're paying you for this, we're giving you a credit. The condition for getting the credit is that, you know, you're not eligible for copyright protection.

Dean Baker 14:11

The last point on that is that this is really easy to enforce for the simple reason that if anyone tries to get a copyright after they're in the tax credit system, they can't enforce it.

Dean Baker 14:24

So, the burden is on them. So let's say that we have someone who thinks they're really clever, and they go, Oh, well, I'm gonna get you know, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 whatever it might be, I can get this through the tax credit system. They can go and get a copyright. Okay, well, good for you. So you go get your copyright and then I go, "Hey, wait, you were in the tax credit system."

Dean Baker 14:43

So then I just started making copies send them to all my friends. And you get angry. You go you have a copyright. I go, "Yeah. trying to enforce it." You can't. So what's really nice about this, and you know, I was around Washington long enough:

Dean Baker 14:56

Great to come up with laws. You gotta figure out how you enforce it. This is real easy. You cheat, you don't have a copyright, you know. So you know, one of the provisions I have in there is if you're in the tax credit system, there's some substantial period, you could argue three years, five years, whatever might be over that period, you're not eligible for the copyright system.

Dean Baker 15:14

So if you want to get the tax credit, that's great. You know, you're in the system, and no copyrights for you.

Dean Baker 15:21

If you go, "No, no, no, I make a fortune through the copyright system." Well, good for you. Don't come to the tax credit system. So that's the basic story. I think this is a concept that, you know, we have precedents for. You know, again, I hold up the the tax deduction for creative work. It's 20 or 30 billion a year. I'd have to check the latest figures. It's a very substantial sum that, again, mostly high income people get. But we have that. We certify organizations as qualifying [for] it.

Dean Baker 15:52

My organization Center for Economic and Policy Research, we're a nonprofit, and we qualify. You get tax deduction. If you give it, anyone wants to do that, that's great. You know, but if you give us 1,000 bucks, and you're in that category, you know, high income person takes, itemize their deductions, you know, the IRS will give you money back. So we have that. And, you know, and to be clear on this. It's not the government doesn't have to they never certified we were good think tank. They certified, we were a "think tank", you know.

Dean Baker 16:19

So if they if they ever audited us that, you know, they're gonna go, what have you done? You know, we'd have to show, oh, we have people that have done research. Here's some of the things we wrote. Here's people gave talks.

Dean Baker 16:29

You know, they don't, they're not going to evaluate (well, maybe they try to, but they're not supposed to) evaluate, "Were those good books, were those good papers, were those good talks?" Just: Did you do them?

Dean Baker 16:38

When it's a religion: You know, they don't look at a religion: They don't go, "Hey, we don't like Catholicism," at least they're not supposed to. You know, maybe that maybe they will one day, but that's not what they're supposed to do. Okay, you have a religion, good, you know. End of story.

Dean Baker 16:50

And that's what they would do here. So someone signs up for the system. They say, I'm a writer, you know. Or I run a newspaper, here's our newspaper, you know. "We make music." We support blues music, whatever it might be. So this is something that, you know, as a practical matter, I think it's very doable. I think it's very fair. And it serves a lot of very, very important needs. So I'll just stop with that.

Questions and discussion[edit | edit source]

Spencer Graves 17:15

Robert McChesney supports citizen-directed subsidies for journalism, a 21st century reincarnation of the US Postal Service Act of 1792, which I claim (and he claims and I claimed) has limited political corruption and encouraged literacy that helps explain why the brand new United States of America that was a quarter the size of Mexico in 1792, is now was substantially larger than Mexico and New Spain, and New Spain fractured and shrank because they didn't have the restraints on political corruption that media represents.

Spencer Graves 18:12

So he's got a different take on on that.

Spencer Graves 18:15

Do, we didn't? Do we have any questions from the audience? I saw one hand go up, and then I saw it disappear. So maybe the answer -- In any case, on the whole, do you think this, the specifics of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is worth passing? Or you would rather pass on it?

Dean Baker 18:43

I would love to see it get passed. Because, you know, I like to think, Okay, how do we move the ball forward? So, you know, it's not my deal. But, you know, you've been around Washington long enough, you go, Okay, well, this is better. Okay, well, that's fine. But if this is going to pass, that's going to pass.

Dean Baker 18:58

So yeah, absolutely. I mean, we, you know, if we, if we could sustain, you know, our newspapers, that's incredibly important. And this would be a huge, huge step towards doing it. So, absolutely, I'd love to see it pass. I just think that, you know, the politics and it might be very difficult. And again, it's not my ideal system, but that's kind of beside the point.

Spencer Graves 19:17

Right? Just to just to reinforce your comments about definition, I don't want corporate bureaucrats nor government bureaucrats deciding what media I consume and what media should get subsidies or what counts, as you said, as a newspaper.

Spencer Graves 19:40

Do you have any thoughts about using volunteer journalists?

Dean Baker 19:47

I mean, you can't rely on that. People may want to do that in their spare time, or people who are, you know, semi retired. So I certainly think that's great to take advantage of, you know, people's time and energies and skills. So I think that's a great thing.

Dean Baker 20:03

But the idea that we could rely exclusively on volunteers for the big work that needs to be done. And you know, as you say, you're talking about corruption, that's so much of a problem everywhere. It's a problem here.

Dean Baker 20:15

But it's even worse in so many other countries.[14] And the way that's limited is the media, you know. Because, who has time? I mean, you know, the government has gotten so complex. There's so many aspects to it. I have a lot of friends who are reporters. And many of them investigative reporters. And they're looking at things that, you know, even a well informed person, you'd have no time to look into on your own.

Dean Baker 20:37

So just to give you one example, the type of thing: You know, Trump imposed a lot of tariffs. And the classic econ or one of the classic economist arguments of tariffs is that there's always going to be loopholes, opportunities for avoidance. And there are massive opportunities for loopholes and avoidance.

Dean Baker 20:52

And, you know, the Trump administration has basically use those to reward its friends -- its campaign contributors, or people in other ways that have done thing for President Trump personally, or for his campaign.

Dean Baker 21:02

Well, no one is going to have time to figure that out, unless, you know, a reporter who's most likely getting paid. Again, if someone who has spare time and you know, they're a retiree, or whatever it might be, and they could do that. That's fantastic.

Dean Baker 21:15

But I, you can't rely on people who are doing this as spare time activity.

Spencer Graves 21:23

Agreed. So do you think media consolidation threatens good government and even democracy? And if so how?

Dean Baker 21:33

Oh, well, you know, what you've seen is, you know -- obviously, and I don't want to glorify the old newspapers and say they were all crusading interests in the public good. But as you've seen consolidation, you've seen the Gannetts and the other big chains, gobble up newspapers: They always cut back on reporting, you know, every single time. Because, you know, they're very clear. We're interested in the bottom line. They don't make any bones about that. I mean, I don't think that, you know, that's, they'll say, Oh, we serve the public interest and everything.

Dean Baker 22:00

But they're looking, "How are we going to get more money next quarter than we did last quarter?" And generally, that means fewer reporters. There's very few exceptions to that.

Dean Baker 22:09

So what we've seen as you know, newspapers and media more generally become more consolidated is they have many fewer people who are actually doing the work of reporting.

Dean Baker 22:18

And where that's really hit hardest has been at the regional level. So you used to have regional newspapers. I grew up in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune, you know, is a pretty good regional newspaper. They had a lot of reporters. And reporters in Washington, you know. So they did national reporting.

Dean Baker 22:34

They've really been beaten back. So they just have many, many fewer people on staff. I mean, I'm holding up them as one. But you have, you know, The Des Moines Register, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, St. Louis Post, but you know, a lot of very good regional papers that did serious reporting, and they've just seen their staffs gutted, you know, in this area of consolidation.

Spencer Graves 22:54

Okay, so we've got questions from two different people. Richard Thompson, and Bill Clause. Is Richard available?

Richard Thompson 23:06

I am. I, first of all, I'm going to preface this question by saying I definitely think it's a wonderful idea to give financial support to local newspapers.

Richard Thompson 23:19

I do have a concern, though, and I'm wondering if you're at all concerned that this will make the entities that are funded, somehow beholden to the government. Like I don't want Donald Trump to be able to call up a newspaper and say, "Hey, if you're not nicer to me, I'm gonna take away all your subsidies."

Spencer Graves 23:43


Dean Baker 23:44

Well, at least if you structured it the way I'm proposing, Donald Trump wouldn't have a more to say about it than with charitable contributions.

Dean Baker 23:52

So, you know, in principle, you could imagine a totally corrupt IRS saying that, oh, you know, we don't like the Boy Scouts, with the Boy Scouts -- I shouldn't use the Boy Scouts, because they have done some bad things.

Dean Baker 23:56

But, you know, we don't like what, you know, the Natural Resources Defense Council or the Sierra Club: We don't like what they're doing. So we're gonna take our take away their tax exempt status.

Dean Baker 24:12

You can always have abuses like that. But those would be really extreme, and we should be thankful for the most part that hasn't happened. You know, so, I think that, you know, you could never -- I mean, Donald Trump is really, you know, extraordinary in the sense that he's violated norms in just about every area, which is, you know, I'm not gonna make any bones, I really, really, really want to see him defeated.

Dean Baker 24:33

Because, you know, we've had Republican and Democratic presidents, many of whom I haven't liked. But, you know, they've generally respected norm. So I don't think we had to worry about them telling the IRS to say, "Hey, shut down, you know, take away tax exempt status" and give them a list. And, you know, I don't like these outfits.

Dean Baker 24:49

And, you know, I think in general we're reasonably safe with that. But that that is cause for concern.

Dean Baker 24:54

But I think again, if it's a system as I've proposed, where it's an individual tax credit system, I think that's, you know, a big step removed from a situation where if the government saying, oh, you're a newspaper, you're a newspaper, you're a newspaper, you get the money. Oh, wait, we don't like what you wrote, you're not a newspaper anymore. So that's one of the reasons why I really liked the individual tax credit system as opposed to, you know, directly subsidizing newspapers.

Spencer Graves 25:18

Wonderful. Regarding that issue, Professor Abernathy has a comment on that when we get to that. But first, let's hear a question from Bill Clause.

Bill Clause 25:28

Yeah, I'm not sure how much this is the question or just a comment and you've kind of already talked about it a little bit. But, you know, we, over the years, we learn to trust our newspapers, that there's kind of somebody curating, you know, what's true, and what's not true? What is supported by evidence and what isn't? And regardless of whether we're talking about citizen journalism, or whether we're talking about the system that Professor Baker is talking about, or what?

Bill Clause 26:04

I just have a concern, and I don't know, there's an answer to it. But, you know, we're pretty divided as a nation, and there's going to be a certain amount of money going to things like QAnon and all the fringe groups out there and what have you. And not all proposals can solve all problems. I guess I'm just concerned about the continued cacophony of different points of view, some that are based in reality, some that are based in fantasy.

Bill Clause 26:36

And I'm not sure how we go about trying to address that issue in the long run with any of these proposals. So anybody got any thoughts on that? This? Again? I'm not sure that's a question or just a comment.

Dean Baker 26:51

Yeah, well, I think that's an absolutely realistic concern. And it will happen. So a lot of people have asked me, "Oh, with your proposal, what's, you know, what's to stop, you know, all these people, QAnon supporters, they'll give it to their QAnon, you know, papers, outlets, whatever they're gonna call them?

Dean Baker 27:06

And I don't have an answer to that: They will, you know. I, you know, I think what we have to do to look to beat them back is to try to give people information. And some people will accept that. Some people won't. We have to work -- you know, I guess I'm an optimist, in the sense that I believe over time that good information will drown out bad information.

Dean Baker 27:26

I mean, we may -- I hate to be a little morose here, but you know, we had Donald Trump saying, "Oh, the virus is no big deal," this and that. Well, you know, he's in the hospital now. You know, so maybe some people will now say, "Yeah, maybe it was a big deal." I know, a lot of people will still say, "No, it isn't." But you know, let's hope that that reduces the number who say, "No, it isn't."

Dean Baker 27:46

But yeah, that's a real problem. I don't think there's, I don't think, you know, the idea that we're getting to censorship, not that you're advocating. I'm just saying, you know, we can't keep people from saying these things. They're going to say them and not much we can do.

Dean Baker 27:59

I mean, one thing I will add on this, it's a little different topic, but I think it is related. The provision, section 230, that says you can't be sued. Facebook's the internet. Intermediaries can't be sued for trafficking libelous material.[15]

Dean Baker 28:15

And I literally cannot understand the justification for that.[15] You know, that it's, you know. That was passed in '96. We might consider that the infancy of the internet. So maybe early on, as, you know, just make it easier.

Dean Baker 28:28

But, you know, The New York Times: If I take out an ad in The New York Times, and I say something that's untrue about someone, I call someone a murderer, they don't get to just sue me: They get to sue The New York Times.

Dean Baker 28:40

In fact, the famous Sullivan v. New York Times[16] that establish the higher libel standard for public figure. That was an ad in The New York Times. That was not The New York Times. They got sued for carrying an ad.

Dean Baker 28:52

But if that were in Facebook, that'd never even gotten in court. They go, "Hey, we're an internet intermediary." You know, I see no justification for that.

Dean Baker 29:00

Now, there is a separate story. I don't want to get too much into the details on this. But, you know, if I ran a bulletin board, you know, so if I had a bulletin board and just anyone who wanted to post anything. So I'm not making money on the ads. Maybe I charge you, you know, a buck a month to be on the bulletin board, whatever it is, you know. Well, then it makes sense, because I have literally no control.

Dean Baker 29:18

But Mark Zuckerberg can't completely claim he doesn't have control. That's what he makes money on. He sells ads. He sells you as a Facebook customer. So he can't claim that: He has control.

Dean Baker 29:29

So if he wants to turn Facebook into a bulletin board, and then people just post and he doesn't make money on the ads, charge you whatever, you know, a month for, then fine, you know, give them you know, then then he shouldn't be liable.

Dean Baker 29:39

But you know, I see zero reason why if you're running an intermediary over the internet, you can't get sued. But if it's in print, if it's on broadcast, you can get sued. That makes zero sense.

Dean Baker 29:51

And, you know, again, that that's related to your question about QAnon, because things are libelous. I mean, they call someone a pedophile. Yeah, that's libelous. You know, and yeah, you know, someone should be sued for that. And so again, is that gonna shut them up? Probably not. But you know, it might slow them down.

Spencer Graves 30:11

Yeah, relating to that there's a book out Antisocial Media[17] that basically says something about how Facebook and other social media are destroying democracy.

Spencer Graves 30:26

So but one question, then would you support a mandate that any organization that accepts advertising or underwriting be required to maintain a searchable database of their ads and underwriting spots?

Spencer Graves 30:46

And that the media couldn't necessarily be sued for the content as long as they kept reasonable records of the ads and underwriting?

Dean Baker 31:02

I think they should be sued for the content, should be able to be sued for the content.

Dean Baker 31:06

I mean, because the situation we will inevitably get is that you'll have some, you know, shady outfit, that's a shadow company, you know, shell company, has no assets. So they call me a pedophile, you know, and I'm not a pedophile, I'm gonna assert that, you know, you'll have to believe me, you know, and, okay, that's about as damning as you can get. It's a pretty horrible thing to call someone.

Dean Baker 31:28

So I want to sue them, and it's carried on Facebook or carried on whoever, and I go, Oh, it's, you know, Corporation, ABC that's incorporated in Delaware. And I can't find out who the people are, who incorporated and they're not liable anyhow, because the corporation, I could just sue the corporation. So I can't collect damages.

Dean Baker 31:48

So I think it's very reasonable to say, hey, Facebook, you have responsibility you have to verify that this is true. And you know, I understand there's issues, you know, suppose I'm posting it up on my Facebook page. Are they going to monitor everything I post?

Dean Baker 32:03

Well, there are things you could do. We actually do this with copyright, that I called Mark Zuckerberg, obviously not Mark Zuckerberg person, I called Facebook to go, "Hey, this is libelous. I want it down." You know, and then they have a chance to review it. And they have 48 hours, I guess arbitrary and pulling that? Well, I could tell you where that comes from. They have 48 hours to verify that, you know, yeah, this is questionable. And then if they determine Yeah, this is libelous, then they, they remove it from the person's webpage, and they have a record. They know everyone who saw it. So they can send out a notice to every single person who saw that, oh, that material was false and libelous. They have the power to do that.

Dean Baker 32:39

You know, so the precedent for that was saying the 48 hours. That's exactly what we did with copyright. So the current law on copyright is that if I'm posting something, or someone else posted something on my website, I should say, so someone and people sometimes do that. They - I have a blog, "Beat the Press." People sometimes post a picture. They post a song. And maybe they're violating copyright.

Dean Baker 33:01

Well, I don't know, I'm not monitoring everything people post. So what would happen under the law is that they would notify me -- the person who wrote the song, owns the copyright in the picture, whatever it might be. They notify me. They say, "Hey, you know, your material that was posted on your blog violates my copyright." And then I have 48 hours to remove it.

Dean Baker 33:19

And if I don't, then they could, of course, sue the person who posted it, but they could also sue me. So you could apply the same sort of standard with Facebook or any other intermediary, that hey, you notify them, they review it, and then they have, you know, 48 hours. Not a magic number, but I think a reasonable time frame to take it down and notify the people saw that this is false and libelous.[15]

Penelope Abernathy, UNC - Chapel Hill[edit | edit source]

Spencer Graves 33:40

I'm speaking now with Professor Penelope Abernathy, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Penelope Abernathy 33:54

That's correct.

Spencer Graves 33:56

She has written multiple recent analyses of the current crisis in local journalism, including one earlier this year on "News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will local news survive?"[18] She has more than 30 years experience as a reporter and editor including senior business management positions at both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Professor Abernathy, please fill important gaps in your bio that I missed and then summarize for our listeners your concerns about news deserts and ghost newspapers.

Penelope Abernathy 34:30

Well, I guess one way to look at my career is it occurred in three parts. The first part I was a journalist, working my way up through a variety of papers, I started my hometown paper and ended up at the Dallas Times Herald in the mid '80s in one of the last of the great newspaper wars.[19]

Penelope Abernathy 34:48

I then went back to grad school and got a Master's in Business Administration, worked in executive positions at The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Business Review, among other places.

Penelope Abernathy 35:02

And since 2008, I have been the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics here at UNC. And my charge is to both document the changes that are occurring in the news landscape and also help develop sustainable business models for new sort of local news operations so that they can survive and thrive in this digital era.

Spencer Graves 35:26

That's wonderful. So tell us more about your concerns about news deserts and ghost newspapers.

Penelope Abernathy 35:34

Well, this kind of came out of the notion of coming back to North Carolina. I was born and raised in North Carolina. I had been abroad, so to speak, living in Kansas, Texas, and New York, both in the city and in the suburbs for about 30 years, more than 30 years. And when I came back, I noticed there had been a huge change in the landscape here in North Carolina.

Penelope Abernathy 35:54

North Carolina has always had very, at least in the latter half of the 20th century, had very aggressive, very strong, regional and state news organizations, as well as very small weeklies. So in fact, one of the smallest newspapers to ever win a Pulitzer public prize was about 5,000, in circulation and in the 1950s, took on the Ku Klux Klan, and won the Pulitzer public service award that year.

Penelope Abernathy 36:24

So real strong commitment to the civic mission of journalism. And what concerned me the most, when I came back was I realized that the media landscape had changed dramatically. While while I was gone, many of these local newspapers have been bought up by large chains. I was also concerned when I realized many of the chains were not the traditional newspaper chains I knew in the past, like a Hearst or a Knight Ridder, or a Gannett, even.

Penelope Abernathy 36:54

They were chains that had been formed overnight by large private equity and hedge funds. And now if you think about it, if you are a traditional newspaper chain, especially one that was publicly traded, you had to kind of balance your shareholder needs against your civic journalism mission. If you are a private equity or hedge fund, your sole mission is shareholder return. It is not about journalism.

Penelope Abernathy 37:23

And so that kind of started me thinking about looking at how ownership had changed and out of the notion of looking at how ownership changed.

Penelope Abernathy 37:31

What I came to realize was that we were losing newspapers at an accelerating rate that had been caused by the collapse of the print advertising model that had basically sustained newspapers for 200 years. And it collapsed in a decade between 2000 and 2010. It fell below 1950 levels.

Penelope Abernathy 37:53

And complicating things, I think I initially assumed if you can just get newspapers to switch over and become more digitally focused and grab more revenue on the digital side, we can solve the problem. Complicating matters, there has not yet been a sustainable digital model that will enable either strong legacy newspapers, or the development of startups in many of the places where we've lost newspapers.

Penelope Abernathy 38:25

Somebody says, "Well, what is it? Are you just trying to preserve a dying industry?" And in fact, that's not it. What I am trying to preserve is the historic role that newspapers have played in this vast country of ours, in connecting us to our communities and informing us in a democracy.

Spencer Graves 38:46

Yes. The Washington Post famously said that democracy dies in darkness.

Spencer Graves 38:54

And you may know that Robert McChesney basically traces a substantial portion of the success of the United States to the US Postal Service Act of 1792. Do you have thoughts about what individuals and government should be doing now to try to fix this problem?

Penelope Abernathy 39:17

Well, one of the silver linings that has occurred out of the COVID-19 is that we have a consensus emerging that we have to do something. You know, we're not saving the print newspaper as as a legacy organization, but we're preserving that vital function that newspapers have historically played, especially in our small and mid size communities, where they have been often the prime if not the sole source of news and information about events that affect every day quality of life for you and me if we live in a small town or a mid-sized community or in a neighborhood, like an inner city neighborhood, that you can get lost in the population of an inner city neighborhood.

Penelope Abernathy 40:06

So one of the things that we have tracked is that over the last 15 years, we've lost a fourth of our newspapers.[20] Most of those newspapers have been, weeklies or non dailies. Almost 2000 of those have been. The rest have been dailies.

Penelope Abernathy 40:25

But there's an equal number of dailies that have also switched to non daily and weekly in an attempt to stave off having to close.

Penelope Abernathy 40:35

Now why did they closed? We had the collapse of the business model. We had the emergence of large chains that came in trying to basically beat the decline by laying off numbers of reporters and journalists.

Penelope Abernathy 40:51

So when you think about the loss of news, there are two ways to think about it. One is the loss of newspapers, of which we lost a fourth of the newspapers we had in 2005.[20]

Penelope Abernathy 41:02

The other way to think about it is the loss of journalists. And here's the other alarming part to that. Since 2008, we've lost more than half of all newspaper journalist.[21]

Penelope Abernathy 41:14

So if you lose a paper in a small and midsize community, what you're losing is the person who shows up at the school board meeting, or the planning board meeting, or the county commission meeting, and covers a routine government meeting and find something that's very critical to the future of that community.

Penelope Abernathy 41:34

What you're losing when you lose a reporter, off a state and regional newspaper is you're losing the person who covers major topics that affect not just a community but an entire region or an entire state. Things like education. Things like environment. Things like health, transportation and infrastructure, public safety. Things that show us how we share problems and possibilities with people in other parts of the state and the region, and also help us pull together policies that the state level and perhaps even at the national level that helps solve the problems for many communities.

Penelope Abernathy 42:17

So part of the issue is first raising awareness among ordinary people: Here's what we've lost. Here's what's at stake. One of the most alarming findings to me came from a Pew Research Center survey in 2018-19 that found that roughly three fourths of the people they interviewed had no idea that newspapers and even digital sites were struggling so, economically. They had noticed kind of a diminishment of local news in recent years, but they did not connect it to the financial woes.

Penelope Abernathy 42:55

So one of the first things we have to do is raise awareness. And one of the great things about the COVID-19, because it seems to have accelerated the decline, is that it has allowed policymakers, especially even at the national level, to start thinking about what sort of legislation do we need in order to save local journalism.

Penelope Abernathy 43:17

And I want to say that is the goal. We want to save local journalism in whatever form. I am agnostic as to how you get it, whether it's on your phone, whether it's home, your laptop, or whether it is in print.

Penelope Abernathy 43:33

But we need to think of ways that we can do that. And think the other thing we have to get our heads around is there's not going to be one business model, but many. So our research has shown us at Chapel Hill over the last decade, that there's probably going to be a for profit model, a nonprofit model, some hybrid models.

Penelope Abernathy 43:54

And in lots of communities, though, what I worry about is there may have to be public funding of some sort that helps get some news in there.

Penelope Abernathy 44:03

One of the most alarming statistics to us at UNC has been the economic profile and demographic profile of communities that have lost newspapers. Invariably, they are much poor, much older, and less educated than the typical community that still has a newspaper. That has huge economic, political and social consequences for this community if you cannot get the information you need in those communities to make wise decisions about your quality of life.

Spencer Graves 44:38

You're familiar with the story of Bell, California?

Penelope Abernathy 44:43

You might want to remind me.

Spencer Graves 44:46

In 1999 or shortly thereafter the local newspaper died. And the city manager said "Wow, the watchdog is dead: Let's have a party." And by 2010 property taxes had gone through the roof. This was a small, modest sized community of 37,000 in Los Angeles County: lower middle class bedroom community, mostly. The city council members for a very part time job were taking down on $100,000 a year. The chief of police was close to half a million. The city manager was 800K, well over what the President United States was taking home. That's a possibility. It's not typical.

Penelope Abernathy 45:45

Well, let me just say, it's interesting. I've talked to all sorts of folks in the industry, folks in government, just ordinary citizens across the country over the last five or six years.

Penelope Abernathy 46:00

And one of the conversations I had was with a group of city and county communication directors that had come together for their annual statewide meeting. And I discussed what was going on. And their immediate concern was, what happens when no one shows up to cover the town council meeting?

Penelope Abernathy 46:22

What responsibility does that fall to me, if I see something occurring that shouldn't be occurring? Who is really going to take on the the county commissioners if they go into a closed meeting that should be open to the public?

Penelope Abernathy 46:38

So they put that on another scale, which is the scholarly scale. There's been lots of research in recent years that shows that when you lose a local newspaper, voter participation in elections goes down, the cost of doing business even if it's not corrupt, goes up. Because there's just something about having a reporter shine light on a county commissioner proposing a bond of some sort that makes them extra diligent and going to check and make sure they're not being charged extra basis points that results in you as a taxpayer paying more money for all of that.

Penelope Abernathy 47:22

So there's a whole range of reasons to think about it.

Penelope Abernathy 47:26

I tell the story that in 2018, I was in the ninth congressional district of North Carolina. You may not remember that. We've lived through it here in the ninth congressional district. I'm not in Chapel Hill. I'm south of Chapel Hill. It is a collection of eight counties starting in Charlotte, North Carolina, the suburbs, and running all the way over to the suburbs of Fort Bragg and Fayetteville. Five of the eight counties are some of the poorest in the state.

Penelope Abernathy 47:57

It is also a news desert with many ghost newspapers, many of them owned by the same company. I started trying to get information about who was running for office for Congress, and could not find anything in my local newspapers. So I had to rely on the papers in Charlotte and Raleigh, but they also had paywalls. So I would hit the paywall very quickly on all of that. So it was just like living in a vast void of information.

Penelope Abernathy 48:30

Well, guess what happened? We had an actual case of a election fraud, not voter fraud: Election fraud, committed by someone who went around collecting absentee ballots and marking them all for the Republican candidate. So as a result, we did not have a representative for more than a year.

Penelope Abernathy 48:53

But here is the punch line, guess who realize the reason and the cause of the election fraud? It was not a reporter. It was a college professor 300 miles away, who two weeks after the election, accessed the State Board of Elections results and noticed that a county that was hugely democratic had gone Republican. And it was all absentee ballots that went that way. So what that says is that there is a potential for corruption.

Penelope Abernathy 49:30

But even in the absence of corruption, there is the potential that we lose connection to our democracy. And in a very real sense, we end up paying more as taxpayers to participate because nobody's there to shine a light, you know?

Spencer Graves 49:50

Do you see a role in this for like volunteer journalists?

Penelope Abernathy 49:56

Well, one of the first thing to do, and that's what we done on our website, it's also in our printed report:[18] Scholars have looked at eight categories of information that the FCC identified back in the early part of this decade, or the previous decade, categories of critical information needs. Now that included things about public safety, about environment, health, economics, the transportation and infrastructure, politics, governance, and I'm sure I'm missing one of them, it might be health or something.

Penelope Abernathy 50:36

But anyway, what we did is take those eight categories, and we have come up with a little exercise where an ordinary citizen can go in and follow a week's worth of news and information on a specific outlet, and find out how much information they are actually getting about these critical information needs. How long is a story? Is it a story that actually gives you additional information and context?

Penelope Abernathy 51:02

It's a pretty simple exercise to do. It's an exercise we use when someone will say, "Hey, you didn't count my newspaper." And we'll use it to say, "Hey, are you really a newspaper? Are you a shopper? Or some other kind of community newsletter?"

Penelope Abernathy 51:22

That's fine, but it doesn't have any of those critical information needs? Do you send somebody to cover the local school board meeting? I think the value of a professional journalist is they bring context. They bring history. And they have they are trained to know what is important and what isn't. So the difference between, I hope, a professional journalist covering a county commissioner meeting is a difference between a set of minutes and a story that actually gives you context, analysis, and insight versus also another one, which is nothing but opinion, instead of giving you the facts, the context and and kind of notion of why it's important to you. That's what really professional journalists covering those communities do for you.

Penelope Abernathy 52:20

I do think there is a role for citizen journalist. I think that part of the issue is, many citizen journalists start out very enthused, and if they're not getting paid, they have other obligations at some point, when they need to make money. And I think that is one of the things that we need to first get people to understand that we really haven't paid for news in this country for 200 years. And it is vitally important in a country this size to support it.

Penelope Abernathy 52:53

And if you look at the amount of public support in other major democracies, whether you're talking about Japan, whether you're talking about Europe, and what we do doesn't even register on a pie chart. Or something like that.

Percent correct answers in surveys of knowledge of domestic and international politics vs. $101 per capita subsidies for public media in the Denmark (DK) and Finland (FI), $80 in the United Kingdom (UK) and $1.35 in the United States (US). Source: The "politicalKnowledge" data set in the "Ecdat" package available on the Comprehensive R Archive Network, based on research cited by McChesney and Nichols (2010).

Spencer Graves 53:14

$100 a year per person in Scandinavia, I think, according to data published by McChesney.[22]

Penelope Abernathy 53:26

First off is getting us to understand what kind of value do we put on it? You know, economists call this a public good, right? A public good means that you benefit, I benefit if we're all better informed. You and I benefit, even if someone else does not vote, because we were informed and voted in a way that that had their proxy.

Penelope Abernathy 53:55

So I think we first have to get ordinary citizens as well as policymakers to think about what it is we value in this country. And how do we get it to communities that need it the most?

Penelope Abernathy 54:12

As I said, my research has shown that if you're in a community that has average to above average, either economic or population growth prospects, and you have a founder or a publisher or an owner of a news organization that has a local mandate, has the ability to make local decisions that are in the best interest of their community and is very disciplined about it, astute business person, you can probably come up with a for-profit model. You have at least a good, average to above average chance to that. You may also, if you're in a relatively affluent or large area, have access to nonprofit funds.

Penelope Abernathy 55:04

One of the distressing things when you look at the places that have lost newspapers, they have no philanthropic giving there. So if you're an economically struggling community, turning for philanthropic donations may not be the answer. And by the same token, a hybrid model will most often work there too, if you're in a in a community. Where we still do not have a clear notion of what will work is going to be in the economically struggling communities, especially those that have lost their newspaper.

Penelope Abernathy 55:42

There's a lot of creative thinking that has occurred in the last year. So there are notions of what can we do with strong legacy, historically strong legacy news organizations that are now owned by hedge funds. Are there ways we can adjust tax policy and the like, to encourage the hedge fund owners to give that to the community and reestablish local ownership?

Penelope Abernathy 55:42

I think local ownership is a critical way that we can bring back accountability and relevance to communities in what's produced. There are notions of you provide tax credits, where we can take a certain amount of money and give it, donate it to a news organization. That is so there are funds coming back in there.

Penelope Abernathy 56:37

So I think we're beginning to grapple with what's going on, think of ways that we can solve this. But we have some examples of some creative independent publishers, who are continuing to pursue for profit or some combination of for profit and nonprofit.

Penelope Abernathy 57:00

So it's going to take a lot of creative minds. It's going to take a disciplined mind, too, because with revenues continuing to be miniscule in many places from the print era, and having not figured out what the next for profit model is, it requires a lot of experimentation and investment.

Penelope Abernathy 57:21

So you've got to be clear on what you're trying to accomplish. Whether you're accomplishing it and know when to pull the plug or invest more going forward. It's a creative time and like all creative times, is full of a lot of tension at times but also full of a lot of possibility.

Spencer Graves 57:40

I know your recent report, "News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers,"[18] had a table of several different pieces of legislation that had been introduced into Congress recently with between one and a dozen co-sponsors. I think the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, appeared after that report was published. And it just yesterday got two more co-sponsors up to a total of 65.

Penelope Abernathy 58:12

I know, yeah.

Spencer Graves 58:13

Bipartisan. 20 of those are Republicans. You want to comment more on that?

Penelope Abernathy 58:21

Well, I think that what, if there is a silver lining in the COVID-19, it is that bills that had languished in Congress and been introduced and no one had really taken up as serious, are moving forward, as well as folks are looking for new ways to do it. And what that has encouraged is bipartisan support. I think it is an interesting statement on how much politicians of both parties rely on local media to get the word out about them, what their platforms are. And that's backed up to if you think about it, if you're a congressional candidate, like in my congressional district, the ninth congressional district stretch from Charlotte to Raleigh, well, you know, you're basically dependent on the TV markets there and you're not going to get on those local television stations that much. You're buying a lot of airtime that's not that targeted, because it's going all over. And you rely on the newspaper to give you a shot at vetting you if you're running for office and you're an unknown or if you are running as a veteran to come back in and make recommendations in terms of editorial picks and and the like. So I think it is an acknowledgement among politicians that newspapers and digital sites outside the metro area are very vital to them in terms of staying in touch with constituents and quite frankly, getting back in office.

John Caputo, Gonzaga University and the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media[edit | edit source]

Spencer Graves 1:00:11

We will now hear from Dr. John Caputo, who is Professor Emeritus and Walter Ong scholar at Gonzaga University and founder of their Master's program in Communications and Leadership Studies. He is also a founder of the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.[23] Professor Caputo, please fill important gaps that I missed in your bio, and then summarize your primary concerns about the current status of the media.

John Caputo 1:00:41

I have been engaged and involved in media, pretty much my whole adult life, both from making and producing radio and television shows as well as some writing journalism and so on. But then I studied the subject in a different way than actually using it, right? So I studied communication and started to understand its implications for our culture for our society, the impact of media in the world we live in, particularly a media saturated society, like the United States.

John Caputo 1:01:24

So what I came to think was, well, I wasn't in favor of control, or those kind of control mechanisms ...

John Caputo 1:01:36

What motivates me and people -- pardon me?

Spencer Graves 1:01:41

You're cutting out. You are not in favor of what?

John Caputo 1:01:45

What I was interested in is how we create and make media and the influence on our society.

John Caputo 1:01:55

So having worked on the "make" side for a while, and then in the academic side, to look at issues of media and media effects in the society, I became very interested not in censorship, but in the way organizations who make media use that and their influence.

John Caputo 1:02:14

So how could I find ways to actually ask people, both users and makers to be more responsible? And what that was about was, what is the obligation that people who make media have to the people who consume media other than just providing content?

John Caputo 1:02:36

And so when you look at mass media, particularly broadcast media, for example, clearly people knew the potential influence of that media on society. So they pass laws that you could not get a radio [especially with the Communications Act of 1934], or later radio or TV license without meeting some standards of what a community needs. Because the obligation really is for really highly ethical kind of information, information that could not tear the community apart, but help the community grow, be together.

John Caputo 1:03:12

And so I'm looking at, "What's the responsible media as opposed to irresponsible?" And I formed this organization called the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media[24] as part of that. Part of it at that time was also the impact on families -- particularly there was a push by networks to do away with the family hour of television. They wanted to do away with various things that their obligation was to fulfill these requirements and had to do the yearly reviews.

John Caputo 1:03:44

But that all changed. It wasn't there for newspapers, because newspapers were privately owned enterprises. The public airwaves that belong the United States, they weren't using those airwaves. The print journalists were just family outlets or some other kind of way to promote things in cities and so on.

John Caputo 1:04:07

So, in looking more closely at this, I started to discover that there are some good players out there, and there are some bad players. People went into journalism, or other forms of digital media and so on, most of them went in it for the good reason. However, profit motives in a capitalistic society are always part of the problem. They're not part of the solution, in that these companies, or in the early days, families, who would own these, were limited in how many stations they could own, how many newspapers they could own. Because the concern was they would be one unified voice, and there would be no alternate voices available to anybody to have.

John Caputo 1:05:00

So then I thought, "Okay, how do we provide, how do we encourage openness of our media to the point of more voices contributing to the discussion? How do we hear from those who don't have a microphone, who don't have a megaphone, who don't have a newspaper? Who don't? How do we get other voices in this?"

John Caputo 1:05:23

So that's what we decided to say is, "How could we encourage media to be more representative of the communities they are a part of? And what is their obligation to the communities as well?" Because these media that we have are very powerful distributors of information, right?

John Caputo 1:05:46

That's why the ownership of these digital media organizations these days, but as well as legacy media, as well, were cash cows, cash machines. Even now, during this election time, a lot of money comes into media for the political process, which really, in the end doesn't really serve us as a society.

John Caputo 1:06:14

So we're always looking for how do we do that? And so actually, the new Sustainability Act: Yes. Newspapers are going out of business. I don't know if you know this book? [Holds up Margaret Sullivan (14 July 2020), Ghosting the News; Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, Columbia Global Reports, Wikidata Q100267990.]

Spencer Graves 1:06:30

What, "Getting the news"?

John Caputo 1:06:32

No, it was "Ghosting the News". [cut out]

Spencer Graves 1:06:35

I only saw part of it.

John Caputo 1:06:38

Yeah, okay. So, this book, and she's very good. And she almost spoke at our thing a week ago; you were there.[25]

John Caputo 1:06:46

But I said to her, "Yes, these things are happening. And these newspapers are going out of business. And they will continue to go out of business. And they serve a major important function in our communities."

John Caputo 1:07:01

"But they've been doing this for some time and didn't make any changes. They didn't really work to find a different business model to operate under." The journalists themselves, I think, would.

John Caputo 1:07:17

I had mentioned maybe 15 years ago, ... could be longer: Many of the grocery chains in my area, were going out of business. But all of a sudden, they became, owner, employee owned; you follow that? So the employees at these grocery stores actually became part owners of that,[26]

Spencer Graves 1:07:44


John Caputo 1:07:45

of those grocery chain. And I had recommended 15 years ago, "Why are newspapers doing that?" Why aren't local newspapers becoming owner employed?

John Caputo 1:07:56

Because to my knowledge, my knowledge of people in media, most don't go into that business for the money. Most go into that as a calling: To write stories, to help the community, to do the things that they think, the important stories.

John Caputo 1:08:13

But the owners' motivation is always to make money. And not just to make money to keep the paper doing what it needs to do best. But profit margins for, in some cases, corporate owned newspapers and hedge funds a whole range of those things. But also for even smaller newspapers: The profit motive has been a model that they refused to modify. And think about that. Now, more recently, the Poynter Institute -- Do you know the Poynter Institute?

Spencer Graves 1:08:51

Yes. I do not know them well.

John Caputo 1:08:55

Yeah, they're now calling for this idea of this model. Kind of the employee-own model. But it took them 15 years to get here, even though all around them, this problem existed. But nobody could think of another business model, because profit-driven news was there.

John Caputo 1:09:18

Now, of course, everybody's losing their shirt, because three or four digital empires are giving away the news and whatever else. And so now they're thinking, Well, what else could we do? In my mind, they waited too long.

John Caputo 1:09:35

On the other hand, this new Sustainability Act, that's kind of what we're also talking about. Yes, it's a nice incentive to say, "How important is local news?" Local news is very important. So there's a very important purpose. If we lose local news, how does that affect, in our case, my interest is, how does that affect citizens? How does it affect the democracy? What do we lose by that content? So finding ways to support local news is really crucial.

John Caputo 1:10:08

On the other hand, I don't want to give them money if they're not serving any particular obligation. So for example, let's take PBS as an example of government funded source money -- not enough, but it's there.

John Caputo 1:10:26

But it comes with lots of stipulations. And the politicians are constantly on them. And if you watch public broadcasting or public radio or one of those, you now see more and more things that look almost exactly like a commercial, that look exactly like what we didn't want them to kind of do.

John Caputo 1:10:47

Now it doesn't change all their programming. But nonetheless, they don't want to offend the Republican Right. And they don't want to lose their funding.

John Caputo 1:10:58

So pledge drives is what they're constantly involved in.

John Caputo 1:11:02

And it alters their content in many ways. I live in eastern Washington. We're on the edge of the border with Idaho. Idaho Public Television is a very different beast, because the politics of Idaho are so conservative that it influences the content of that.

John Caputo 1:11:23

So, what needs to happen? If I read and understand the act, it includes some funding for the actual occupation, for employing people, the whole range of occupations, and also money to provide and pay for advertisement in other media.

John Caputo 1:11:58

Now, the major newspaper here in the city of Spokane -- we have two weeklies, and we have one daily. And it's still a very good paper many ways. And it is family owned, as opposed to corporate owned.

John Caputo 1:12:18

But that content gets influenced in ways where -- What is our obligation to the stories and the community?

John Caputo 1:12:31

So I'm always looking for those ways that you can hold the creators of content to some sort of high standard of obligation to serve the community. So for example, our city paper is called The Spokesman-Review. But they also own the NBC affiliate, KHQ-TV.

John Caputo 1:13:01

If they're going to get money to pay for advertisement to keep their newspaper going, is that a conflict of interest that they own KHQ-TV and several radio stations? Is all that advertising money that's made available through this act? I think you'd have to have clarification: What is their obligation to use other advertisers, other advertising media?

John Caputo 1:13:32

Otherwise, it gives them a distinct profit advantage over one of the weekly papers, you know. We have two: We have one called Pacific Northwest Inlander. And we have the Black Lens.[27]

John Caputo 1:13:48

So both those papers are weekly. But they don't own any television stations. They don't own radio stations.

John Caputo 1:13:57

So if this bill became passable, the Sustainability Act, I haven't read them and understood them totally. I haven't understood them totally. But when I read them the first couple of times through, I said, "Here are questions."

John Caputo 1:14:16

Of course, I support local media. Of course, I want these voices to be heard. But I do think it's fair to hold them to some obligation for getting this funding.

John Caputo 1:14:27

And mostly what I think it should be is about open access. That the access should allow to hear from these voices that are not here.

John Caputo 1:14:44

I did a media bias study some time ago. Really, it was over the local paper. It was a photo audit, looking at who's represented and who's not represented in our local paper, particularly. In this case, we were primarily using photos to identify that.

John Caputo 1:15:00

Sure enough,it revealed to a great extent the bias that exists the paper by underrepresented groups. What was it? But it wasn't personal bias. It was systemic bias. It was who reads the paper, who creates paper, who tells the stories in the paper, and so on?

John Caputo 1:15:24

So, yes, minority voices were clearly missing from the paper. And if they showed up in the paper, it was in the crime section, it was in the sports and entertainment section, where you would find minority people represented.

John Caputo 1:15:43

Now, that was 15 years ago. And so what would we find today? Not very different. Not very different. However, there are good people work at the local papers. And recently they've been using sections of the Black Lens, which is produced and created here by an African-American woman. And they're actually taking the whole sections of her paper now, putting that in the local daily paper.

John Caputo 1:16:18

Okay, well, that's a break. There's also another person who has a small community paper, a religious-based paper about not, uh, not specific denomination, but about religion in people's lives and organization. Well, they're now using some of her articles in the daily paper as well for some more voices to be heard. And in my mind, those are those are good steps.

John Caputo 1:16:51

Oh, I'm sorry, my landline. Ringing simultaneously.

Spencer Graves 1:16:55

That's okay. So, that's great. Do you have other thoughts about what individuals --

John Caputo 1:17:04

I'm going to hang this up.

John Caputo 1:17:07

Okay. Say it, again?

Spencer Graves 1:17:10

Do you have other recommendations, what individuals and government entities might do to respond to these problems?

John Caputo 1:17:19

Well, there has to be a will. There has to be a sense that there isn't good representation now. This is not to find fault. And I'm not talking about paying anybody reparation. I'm just sort of saying, you have to say, we can be better.

John Caputo 1:17:39

We could be better by doing the things that we haven't been doing, or haven't had the access to, or our funding got tighter and tighter. So we ended up with less and less writers, producers of the product. We end up with young kids maybe not even getting out of college, because everybody's a journalist and 2000, 2020. Right?

John Caputo 1:18:02

You say, Well, we need quality. So how do we keep quality but allow these new voices to come into this? One thing the Spokesman after that little study, it was a very small thing: In terms of photographs in the paper, like weddings, or anniversaries and so on, there were never minority people represented in that section, because they never submitted any of their photos or their weddings or anniversaries or other kinds of things, even in the obit page.

John Caputo 1:18:38

No. They didn't think like that. They didn't have access. They didn't read that paper.

John Caputo 1:18:44

So the very simple suggestion was to start making cameras available to people who are interested in having their anniversary photo, their wedding photo. And we have a business section: It's little mug shots of who's been promoted, you know? Who has been promoted at their business?

John Caputo 1:19:03

Well, the same thing. There's total unpresentation of a lot of people. Do minority people not work? Yes, they work. You have to find ways to pull that kind of news to have a representative media.

John Caputo 1:19:18

So those are just small things. I have some pretty bright people put that stuff together for some brainstorming. And they would identify the things that would actually make them more representative of the communities in which they exist and serve them a lot better.

John Caputo 1:19:36

I was talking at the beginning about radio and TV licensing from the 1934 Radio Act.

John Caputo 1:19:46

Well, I don't think we have to have a license. But we have to have some sort of pledge that they're obligated to try to do more and different. Why not take this opportunity to really make some changes that haven't been made? I think, with the pandemic and everything that's going on, loss of business, loss of profit, why not really say, "Well, this is an opportunity to rethink our model and come up with a better version of our better selves and and do that?" Are you going to please everybody? No, it's not possible.

Spencer Graves 1:20:23

One of the things that has crossed my mind is to require any organization that accepts advertising to maintain a database of their advertising and their underwriting spots that's reasonably searchable. And also to reintroduce a Fairness Doctrine that's substantially stronger than the one that was eliminated in '87. Comment?

John Caputo 1:20:51

Yes. Exactly. I think that's very crucial. We're talking about sustainability. I think there should be some limits on the amount of political advertising. I understand they want the cash. But the reality is, it affects the final product that people receive.

John Caputo 1:21:32

And the Fairness Doctrine is a really good place to start. I really appreciate you reminding me of that. I'd like to call a Continental Congress. I like to call a lot of bright people together, to talk about, let's do this different. We got a good chance here, because we're going down the tubes. The world's crazy. The debates were the most revolting thing I've ever seen. Why don't we find a way to ...

Spencer Graves 1:22:01

What was the most revolting thing you've ever seen?

John Caputo 1:22:03

The recent presidential debate.

Spencer Graves 1:22:06

Oh, yes. Right. Thankfully, I didn't watch that.

John Caputo 1:22:11

Yeah, so you say, Well, let's take this an opportunity to clean our act? And

Spencer Graves 1:22:19


John Caputo 1:22:20

go in places that we didn't feel we could. Even at my university over the last 15 years, we've hired more and more former journalists, right? They lost their jobs, or they were going to be laid off. And so we're hiring them for part time academic work, for people who have practical knowledge, but they're not really academically that qualified. But they're okay. And they're good people. And they bring a lot. So I think yes, well, that's a shame. And you could see that. It's been happening for a long time.

John Caputo 1:22:58

So all of a sudden COVID comes through, everything's burning now. Oh, maybe we can save our butts with this. Well, maybe. But how about taking responsibility for a product and finding ways that people really want to use you? You know, I want that thing?

Spencer Graves 1:23:18

Do you see a way to use volunteers in journalism?

John Caputo 1:23:24

Yeah, I think it's crucial. I put up a few students, who come from other parts of the country, came here in the summertime, to work as internships in the local paper.

John Caputo 1:23:37

But I think volunteers, because I think you need some sort of apprentice system, really, to sort of bring up the level, the numbers of people who can really start to do this. And as I said early on, I don't think people go into journalism, etc, to become wealthy people.

John Caputo 1:23:57

Like teachers, they're thinking, "This is my calling, I want to do this. I want to tell what's going on. I want to reveal. I want to share. I want to do that. I want to write."

John Caputo 1:24:06

Well, some people maybe are totally profit driven. I don't know them personally. And I don't find them when I'm in undergraduate classes. That's not what the people are. They know the thing they're picking. It's not a high paying job.

John Caputo 1:24:10

And they're still doing it. They still want to do that. So that why I say it's a calling.

John Caputo 1:24:25

So volunteers. We have a couple of volunteer radio stations in town. They don't have any problem getting volunteers to come in. Now is the quality up and down? Yeah, the quality is up and down. Depending who's supervising or helping the volunteer to do what it is they're gonna do, but that's fine.

John Caputo 1:24:47

I mean, it used to be there were these college radio stations where college students could learn to do this. But really, even the radio station in my own university sort of pushed the students off the station and hired a service to come in and do classical music for them.

John Caputo 1:25:04

So no students are involved in the college radio station at my university: It's all kind of just licensed out to somebody else who's doing that. And they have very high ratings, because we're one of the only classical music stations in the city of Spokane.

John Caputo 1:25:22

So you think you're going to get the university to drop that service they're doing, and bring students back into learning how to do radio? It's not an easy sell.

Spencer Graves 1:25:34

Right. So does media consolidation threaten good government and even democracy? And if so how?

John Caputo 1:25:48

Well, yes, media consolidation, just owns everything.

Spencer Graves 1:25:56

Homogenizes the voice? Right?

John Caputo 1:25:58

Yes. It's an awful thing, quite honestly.

Spencer Graves 1:26:03

You don't get the cacophony that you need, right?

John Caputo 1:26:06

Yes. Right. So, wait a minute: Where are the voices? How do we do this? Consolidation? You know, all these big radio companies who own all these stations and do the same thing wherever they're at throughout the country? How's that? You know, that doesn't serve anybody very well, except the profit makers at the corporate level. Again, some people have jobs, but

John Caputo 1:26:36

I would go back to this station or the newspaper: There has to be a limitation on media ownership. And that limitation is to keep diversity in the media. In terms of owners, storytellers, writers, producers, directors, people coming from various environments to, to bring that.

John Caputo 1:27:02

And it happens on volunteer radio. Our radio station's KYRS, and it's a nonprofit. And they do pretty good.

Spencer Graves 1:27:15

I'm with radio station KKFI, 90.1 FM, Kansas City Community Radio.

John Caputo 1:27:22


Spencer Graves 1:27:24

Specially inspired by KBOO, K B O O, in Portland, Oregon, who pay a full time journalist to train and manage volunteers to produce a daily news broadcast.

John Caputo 1:27:41


Spencer Graves 1:27:42

And their former head of that, Lisa Loving,[28] has a book out on Street Journalism.[29]

John Caputo 1:27:49


Spencer Graves 1:27:50

Right. So, another question, comment: Robert McChesney, Bruce Ackerman, Dean Baker, Julia Cagé, and others have advocated things like citizen-directed subsidies for journalism, similar to a resurrection of the US Postal Service Act of 1792.

John Caputo 1:28:11


Spencer Graves 1:28:12

And there are various ways to get audience involvement in editorial policies. Your thoughts on that?

John Caputo 1:28:19

I think is very good idea. I think it's very appropriate. I agree with almost anything Robert McChesney said. I tried to get him to come to Gonzaga a lot of times. He's from Seattle. I could never get him to come. He'd never budge. I don't know if there's a fear of flying or what he has.

John Caputo 1:28:45

But all those people. Look at the impact on democracy. Look at what can happen, and how this has deteriorated over time. And now we find ourselves in this place where we're at right now. But actually, that's why our -- I think you came to our thing a week ago.[25] That's why we call it a reset, because we think, "Okay, wait a minute." Yes, there are all these terrible things. But in fact, this might be the opportune time to how we can get back in a better place for this.

Spencer Graves 1:29:18

One more question: You mentioned "employee owned." It is my understanding that some years ago The Kansas City Star used to be employee owned and for some bizarre reason the employees sold it. Do you know anything about that?

John Caputo 1:29:36

I don't. But I'm gonna start reading about it as soon as I get off the phone.

Spencer Graves 1:29:41

If you find anything about it, I'd be extremely interested.

Spencer Graves 1:29:44

By the way I could mention, in my judgment, the entire Cold War and the war on terror are products of the commercial, of the advertising imperative.

John Caputo 1:30:02


Spencer Graves 1:30:03

Dwight Eisenhower said in his 1963 autobiography that he never communicated with anyone knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that the Communist Ho Chi Minh might have gotten 80% of the vote if elections had been there held there at the time of the fighting, leading to the defeat of the French in '54.[30]

Spencer Graves 1:30:28

That was the universal, expert, consensus, right? And it was not even mentionable in the mainstream media of that day.

Spencer Graves 1:30:41

And there are similar things I could say about the war on terror, summarized in the Wikiversity article on Winning the War on Terror.

Spencer Graves 1:30:49

Thank you, Professor Caputo, for your comments.

Acknowledgements[edit | edit source]

Spencer Graves 1:30:52

And thank you to our audience for your time. I think we need a cacophony of voices like the US subsidized under the US Postal Service Act of 1792.

Spencer Graves 1:31:03

This program was co sponsored by 90.1 FM, KKFI, Kansas City Community Radio, the Climate Council of Greater Kansas City, and Friends Community Media. Opinions expressed here are those of the speakers alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the sponsors. Thanks to Bob Grove, who managed the technology.[31]

References[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. John Caputo, Wikidata Q100192296.
  2. Climate Council of Greater Kansas City, Wikidata Q100166732.
  3. Friends of Community Media, Wikidata Q100167560.
  4. Mark Maassen, Wikidata Q100185163.
  5. Missouri Press Association, Wikidata Q100181432.
  6. The recording said "Live", clearly an error.
  7. John Caputo, Wikidata Q100192296.
  8. David Chavern (16 July 2020), CEO Statement: The News Media Alliance Supports the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, News Media Alliance, Wikidata Q99828406<-- CEO Statement: The News Media Alliance Supports the Local Journalism Sustainability Act -->.
  9. America's Newspapers, Wikidata Q99306383
  10. Dean Baker (2016), Rigged: How globalization and the rules to the modern economy were structured to make the rich richer, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Wikidata Q100216001.
  11. Democracy Voucher Program, Wikidata Q100222392.
  12. Baker's exact verbiage was close: "article eight, section, Article eight of section one."
  13. "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
  14. Why Nations Fail.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Dean Baker (18 December 2020), Getting Serious About Repealing Section 230, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Wikidata Q105418677.
  16. In 1960 L. B. Sullivan, a police commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, sued The New York Times for defamation. He won a $500,000 judgment in the county court. The New York Times appealed, at which point it became New York Times v. Sullivan rather than Sullivan v. New York Times.
  17. Siva Vaidhyanathan (12 June 2018). Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (in en). Oxford University Press. Wikidata Q56027099. ISBN 978-0-19-084118-8. .
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Abernathy (2020).
  19. The Dallas Times Herald "shutdown on December 8, 1991. The next day, [the] owner of the [competitor, the {{w|Dallas Morning News]], bought the Times Herald assets for $55 million and sold the physical equipment to a variety of buyers to disperse the asset and thus prevent any other entity from easily re-establishing a competitive newspaper in Dallas."
  20. 20.0 20.1 Abernathy (2020, p. 15)
  21. Abernathy (2020, p. 25)
  22. This is a modification of the transcript: Graves misspoke in saying, "But others do buck 50 a year versus $1 a year per person in Scandinavia and 50 cents in Britain, I think, according to data published by McChesney.
  23. John Caputo, Wikidata Q100192296. The transcript says he was "the founder" of the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media. Other documentation indicates he was not the sole founder.
  24. Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, Wikidata Q100194371.
  25. 25.0 25.1 This "thing a week ago" was a virtual panel discussion on "Media & Democracy: Time for a Reset", 2020-09-24, organized in part by Fix Democracy First, Wikidata Q100268205.
  26. Research suggests that worker cooperatives, where workers have a say in the management, beyond being mere part owners, on average tend to be more productive and less likely to go out of business than more traditionally managed companies. For this see, Worker cooperative.
  27. Black Lens, Spokane, Wikidata Q100269249.
  28. Lisa Loving, Wikidata Q65115420.
  29. Lisa Loving (10 May 2019), Street Journalist: Understand and Report the News in Your Community, Microcosm Publishing, Wikidata Q65115459.
  30. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1963), Mandate for Change: The White House Years 1953-1956: A Personal Account, Doubleday, Wikidata Q61945939, p. 372 in Ch. XIV. Chaos in Indochina.
  31. Grove is President of the Climate Council of Greater Kansas City, Wikidata Q100166732; he should have been mentioned in the video.