The Answer to the Media Industry’s Woes? Publicly Owned Newspapers.Roundup
tags: media, newspapers, Utilities
Victor Pickard is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change Center. He is the author of the recent book Democracy Without Journalism?
As the economic fallout from the coronavirus further decimates financially struggling small-town and city newspapers — still Americans’ main source for original local journalism — a desperate search is underway for alternative models. Analysts are looking around the world and back through history for examples of news media that don’t depend on advertising revenue — a collapsing business model that is unlikely to ever return. Ideas range from starting donor-funded nonprofit organizations to repurposing public broadcasting systems. But one intriguing experiment from American history has been almost entirely forgotten: the municipal newspaper.
During the Progressive era, public outrage grew over commercial excesses such as yellow journalism and propaganda — the “clickbait” and “fake news” of the early 20th century. A nonprofit, municipal-owned newspaper seemed like an idea whose time had come. George H. Dunlop, a “good government” progressive and former Hollywood mayor, conducted a successful petition, and Los Angeles became a test case for this experiment.
In a December 1911 vote, a majority supported the proposal to establish a taxpayer-funded paper, and the Los Angeles Municipal News launched in April 1912. With a government-guaranteed annual subsidy of $36,000 (worth nearly $1 million today), the city helped finance the distribution of up to 60,000 copies. To ensure accountability, the mayor appointed a commission of three citizen volunteers to govern the paper. They served four-year terms but were subject to recall by voters at any time. Dunlop, the newspaper’s original architect, was chosen as one of the commissioners.
The newspaper sought to be nonpartisan and democratic by guaranteeing an equal amount of weekly column space to any political party that received more than 3 percent of the vote, including the Democratic, Republican, Socialist and Socialist Labor parties. Newspaper carriers delivered the weekly paper, which was usually eight to 12 pages, free of charge to homes. People could also subscribe via mail for one penny.