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Emily Bell, Victor Pickard and Nikki Usher kick off new Tow webinar series on local journalism and media policy

“What role can (and should) media policy play in supporting a strong, sustainable, vibrant local media sector in the United States?”

By Nick Mathews

A powerhouse panel provided a simple, yet thorough primer to a new five-part series on the complex intersection of media policy and local journalism. The series kicked off in October and was hosted by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. and will explore how media policy can support local journalism.

The first discussion, which provided an overview of this complex issue and many of the facets which accompany it, featured three expert panellists: Victor Pickard (University of Pennsylvania), Nikki Usher (University of Illinois), and Emily Bell (Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism) and was moderated by Tow fellow Damian Radcliffe from the University of Oregon.

Why are we having this conversation?

At the heart of the matter lies a crumbling legacy news media sector and an emerging dialogue about the concerns, and possibilities, of government support for local news. Publicly funded support for journalism is not an alien concept in many parts of the world, but the US market enjoys a number of unique characteristics that make this concept less embedded in the United States. If all of these democratic countries around the world have been able to figure it out, I think we can, too,” Pickard said. “And I think we have to.” That is because, he believes, local journalism cannot survive financially on its own.

The market won’t fix itself,” Pickard said plainly.

“I think the evidence is that, at least for particular kinds of journalism, there really is no commercial future. The market will continue to drive local journalism in particular into the ground. … If we don’t find non-market means of support, we know what’s going to happen.”

Added Bell: “Small news organizations don’t really have a sustainable future in a market which works on the basis of advertising dollars and which is controlled by a couple of really enormous companies.”

What role might media policy play?

Perhaps the most talked about area of media policy right now is focused on the notion of an increase in government subsidies to help support local journalism. Some initiatives are already in action, with the state of New Jersey, for instance, allocating between $1 million and $2 million to help rehabilitate local journalism. (Of note, the total is down from the original $100 million proposal). Other subsidy ideas being discussed include enabling residents to purchase local news subscriptions, or support non-profit providers through a “local news credit” and tax breaks for businesses to purchase advertising with local news organizations.

Usher, for one, is “very wary” of such government intervention.

“The concern some people have, including myself, is not so much about government support, but about dependency on government support and what happens when the government pulls the rug out under you,” Usher said. “And so, I think that that’s actually when my hesitation comes in against relying too much on public subsidies.”

Usher also identified “soft subsidies” that already exist. For instance, at the University of Illinois, student programming fees support subscriptions to the New York Times, not the regional Chicago Tribune or the local News-Gazette.

Who should get support?

Overall, Usher argued media policy’s support of local journalism “requires thinking big and bold.” At the same time, Usher said, it also “requires starting at the very basics.”

There are things that exist that we can do that don’t have to be created from the ground up. And it’s about thinking creatively within the potential that’s already present,” Usher said.

One of the primary questions regarding possible subsidies for local news organizations is, which organizations will benefit from the subsidies? For instance, would Gannett, which includes many small news organizations in its portfolio — but also is the largest newspaper publisher in the United States- be eligible?

“For the first time, I think America is facing this idea that somehow you’re going to have to define this … which at least identifies who might or might not be suitable for subsidy,” Bell said. “This should be for as broad and imaginative group as we can possibly include.”

Why is this a difficult conversation in the US?

For decades, news organizations have traditionally balked at the idea of receiving government funding. And in many ways, the First Amendment, championed as journalism’s greatest arrow, has — in the eyes of some — also effectively impeded the implementation of media policy because of its seemingly interventionist stance; a stance some believe to be at odds with the very nature of a free press.

“So much of what we’re dealing with now are really discursive impediments, that you’ll start talking about these things and as a knee jerk reaction, people would just say, ‘First Amendment’ as a kind of conversation stopper,” Pickard said.

But, now, he said, is the time to counter-punch such arguments. “We all learn in school that democracy requires a free-and by implication functional-press system. And it is the affirmative duty of government to guarantee that we have that press system,” he said. “So I think, if we start using these kinds of discursive weapons…we can try to counteract both the market fundamentalism and the First Amendment fundamentalism that are often used to beat down these conversations, especially here in the U.S.”

Looking ahead

Ultimately, as the local journalism sector struggles mightily, the decision by any stakeholder to stand by quietly speaks volumes. “Policy inaction is as important, sometimes more important, than actual policy action,” Pickard said. “The bottom line is that government is always involved in our media. The real question is how the government should be involved, and that is a question for media policy.”

Nick Matthews is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication and a Research Assistant at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Missed this event?

You can watch the full conversation on YouTube, listen on SoundCloud or read the transcript on Scribd.

Future Webinars

This conversation on media policy and local journalism will continue at 4 p.m. Eastern Time on Nov. 18. All future events are being hosted by the Tow Center at 4 p.m. Eastern Time on the third Thursday of every month (Oct ’21 — Jan ‘22).

The second panel of the five-part series is entitled, “Lessons from Oversees,” with panellists Sameer Padania (Founder and Advisor, Macroscope Lead Author Journalism Funders Forum), Matthew Powers (University of Washington) and Kristy Hess (Deakin University, Australia) anchoring a discussion about media policy in local journalism outside of the United States, with a particular emphasis on Europe and Australia. Sign up to join us here.

Looking ahead, the Dec. 15 panel will focus on issues unique to grassroots media, and the Jan. 19 panel will address emerging issues and fresh ideas in media policy. On Jan. 26, there will be a wrap-up panel, highlighting many of the lessons learned from the five-part series.

All panels are free and open to the public.

Originally published at



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