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April 24, 2019, 10:31 a.m.
Business Models

Andrew Yang, the most meme-able 2020 candidate, also wants to save journalism

Yang’s core idea — that local journalism, increasingly unable to pay for itself, should be subsidized by the federal government — would broaden the range of policy proposals up for mainstream political debate.

If you haven’t heard of Andrew Yang, you’re not alone, but your crowd is thinning out. The entrepreneur-turned-politician has been running for the Democratic nomination for president since November 2017, and for most of that time, he was written off as a fringe candidate. But even in the impossibly crowded Democratic field, Yang has found enough ways to stand out to qualify for this summer’s party-sponsored debates, draw thousands to rallies, and surpass 100,000 individual donors. The prediction market PredictIn currently rates his chances at the nomination higher than those of Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, or Cory Booker.

So who is Andrew Yang? He’s a self-professed “numbers guy” who likes saying that “the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.” While some politicians speak in broad terms about saving the country, Yang bombards his audiences with data and proposals; his talks can feel more like economics lectures than rousing calls to action. The blue hats his campaign sells read “MATH” across the front. His primary platforms involve protecting the nation from the detrimental effects of automation — which he warns threatens jobs to an extent that it could spark civil unrest when truckers lose their jobs to robots — and providing a universal basic income of $1,000 per month to every adult. And as that PredictIn survey might indicate, the Internet digs him — his “Yang Gang” on Reddit and elsewhere applauds his every proposal, from supporting Puerto Rican statehood to opposing circumcision (though not too much).

On his campaign website, Yang outlines his positions on no fewer than 105 different policy issues — including banning the penny, yearround Daylight Saving Time, “Free Marriage Counseling for All,” and “Empowering MMA Fighters.” But a few of those also have to do with journalism, which he says is essential to a functioning democracy.

While praising the press is practically a cliché for Democratic politicians in the age of Trump, Yang does have some of the most specific policy ideas this far on strengthening journalism.

One part of Yang’s plan for journalism is what he calls the American Journalism Fellows program, which would see the government pay for 535 experienced, vetted journalists to be placed in local newsrooms in every corner of the country. Every state would receive as many journalists as it has members of Congress; California, for example, would have 55, Massachusetts would have 11, and states like Wyoming and North Dakota would have three. Every congressional district in the country would have at least one government-funded reporter, and journalists selected for the program would receive $100,000 per year for a four-year term.

Such a program could have a few effects. With many of the most talented reporters often drawn to major cities where the best paying and most prestigious jobs are, the program would provide a strong financial incentive for them to stay in or move to rural areas — or at least towns and cities not already saturated with reporters — for long periods of time. In areas where fewer subscribers and fewer advertisers have forced newspapers to scale back operations to a point where coverage suffers, the program could provide quality reporting independent of the financial struggles of local news organizations. Yang even suggested that the program could be used to pay for a reporter to stay in an area where all local outlets have closed.

“It’s just meant to provide quality journalism to every area, regardless of whether it has the natural commercial interest,” he told me while campaigning in New Hampshire in March. “Because if you’re going to have democracy function at a high level, you’re going to need people helping provide information on what the government is doing.” (You might notice the similarities between what Yang is proposing and the Local Democracy Reporters the BBC has funded across the U.K.)

A second Yang proposal is the creation of a $1 billion Local Journalism Fund that would be overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. The fund would disburse grants of between $25,000 and $250,000 to local news organizations as well as nonprofits, libraries, local governments, and public-private partnerships to “catalyze transitions to new models of support.” The goal of the program would be to help keep local news outlets afloat when many are seeing less revenue.

“Studies have shown that if you lose your local paper, voters become more polarized and the democratic process is less effective,” Yang told me. “So if you believe in democracy, then you have to believe in local journalism.”

Beyond shelling out money to shore up local journalism, Yang also says he wants to restore trust in the media and prevent the deliberate and malicious spread of misinformation by domestic and foreign actors — an issue that plagued the country in the 2016 election and continues to rear its head. To do that, he proposes creating a News and Information Ombudsman’s office at the FCC to investigate complaints of deliberate misinformation as well as the spreading of misinformation by foreign actors. “If enough citizens complain about a particular source of information and news is demonstrably and deliberately false, there should be penalties,” his proposal states. (Journalists may be less excited about that one.)

More ambitious, perhaps, is Yang’s call for the creation of a “Media Responsibility Task Force” with representatives of media and technology companies “to discuss ways to get Americans agreeing on the facts again.” That program, Yang says, would be supported by the government but not directed by it.

Despite prediction markets’ optimism, Yang remains a long-shot contender in a field filled with veteran politicians who can more readily rely on the support of the Democratic Party’s base. That said, he’s gained more visibility and securing a spot for himself on the debate stage — which could mean his ideas about journalism get broader reach.

Of course, even if Yang is elected, each of his proposals would face opposition. At a time when Donald Trump promises to defund NPR every year, “government-funded media” is a potent image, conjuring up images of Russia’s conspiracy-theory promoting RT station or any number of the propaganda networks and outlets propping up dictatorships across the world. It’s easy to imagine pundits who regularly shout about the mainstream media claiming government bias in the selection of American Journalism Fellows’ reporters, or lashing out at an ombudsman’s office at the FCC.

But Yang’s core idea — that local journalism, increasingly unable to pay for itself, should be subsidized by the federal government — would broaden the range of policy proposals up for mainstream political debate.

In New Hampshire, I asked Yang what drove him to create his proposals for journalism. Beyond journalism’s role in democracy, he told me he found it “not very mindful” for presidential candidates to travel the country expecting breathless coverage from local journalists who are probably worrying about being laid off or seeing their paper closed.

“If the politician thinks that journalism is doing something important, then we should be trying to make that more sustainable,” he said.

Photo of Andrew Yang at the 2018 Collision Conference by Stephen McCarthy/Collision used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 24, 2019, 10:31 a.m.
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