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We will finally confront systemic market failure

“Those unconstrained by market ideology might dare to consider what a new, truly public, digital media system could look like in the United States and beyond.”

2019 is the year we finally face up to what we already know: No commercial model for journalism can adequately serve society’s democratic needs. To be more specific, no such model can address the growing news deserts that are sprouting up all over America. No purely profit-driven media system will ever solve the local journalism crisis.

Whether news media’s commercial imperatives have ever fully aligned with democratic objectives is another discussion, but today we can safely conclude that the market cannot support the level of journalism — especially local, international, policy, and investigative reporting — that a healthy democracy requires.

This realization will include the necessary caveats—subscription and membership models will likely sustain some relatively niche outlets and perhaps large national newspapers like the New York Times. Commercial news organizations will persist in some form. And so on.

But this coming year, as advertising-dependent journalism continues its slow death, as vulture capitalists continue to pick over the bones, as news rooms continue to hollow-out, we will come to see systemic market failure for what it is. We will acknowledge that no entrepreneurial solution lies just around the bend. We will give up the ghost of discovering a magical technological fix or a market panacea. Instead, we will begin to look more aggressively for non-market-based alternatives. (And no, this does not mean state-controlled media).

What will this look like? My prediction only goes so far, but at the very least, new models will require a combination of philanthropic support as well as public monies. Fortunately, many successful nonprofit news outlets already exist, from ProPublica to the Texas Tribune. But a more systemic solution — namely, a new public media system — is still a worthy goal.

During the Trump era, public media subsidies probably have the best chances with state governments, especially those that now have Democratic-controlled legislatures. This past year, New Jersey provided a proof-of-concept model with its civic info bill. Another potential revenue stream: Platform monopolies like Google and Facebook could be compelled to offset social harms and help create a journalism trust fund.

Whatever their form, building viable noncommercial models will be a long, hard slog. Many flowers will bloom and wither. But the experiments will continue. Historical and international models can broaden our imagination for what is possible. And those unconstrained by market ideology might dare to consider what a new, truly public, digital media system could look like in the United States and beyond.

If we start with the premise that commercial journalism is a dead end for what our democracy requires, it may entirely reorient tired conversations about the future of news. It might free us to think more creatively and more boldly.

As the market continues to drive journalism into the ground, here’s hoping we can finally accept what stares us in the face and plan a path forward accordingly. We have nothing to lose but our democracy.

Victor Pickard is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

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