The local rise of Public Media Centers

“Journalism’s transitional moment could be transformational — but only if we reinvent our news media, not resuscitate failing commercial models.”

In 2022, we will confront a stark choice: Either we build non-market systemic support for local journalism, or we condemn entire communities to a future of news deserts.

This crossroads will be increasingly unavoidable as unfettered market forces — hedge-fund vultures and other opportunistic pathologies — continue to devour what’s left of local media. Commercial journalism’s dissolution calls for radical thinking toward bold new models.

A long-term utopian vision can help us imagine entirely new kinds of journalism that are liberated from the market to privilege people over profits. Universal yet accountable to local needs. Federally guaranteed yet owned and controlled by the communities that newsrooms serve and the journalists who work there.

We might call these publicly funded news cooperatives Public Media Centers (PMCs). As a new community anchor institution alongside schools and hospitals, PMCs could serve as primary building blocks for a post-commercial media system that’s both democratizing and impervious to market failure.

Kernels of this alternative system already exist within community infrastructures, including public access cable outlets, public broadcasting stations, libraries, and even post offices. We could imagine PMCs organized as municipal newspapers and multi-media hubs that produce a wide range of news and information. And we could fund them democratically via programs like the Local Journalism Initiative that are decentralized and less vulnerable to state capture.

Some signs suggest U.S. society is moving in the right direction. Congress has finally come to see the journalism crisis as a problem for public policy, even calling for media subsidies that were inconceivable a decade ago. At the same time, numerous independent experiments have launched in recent years during what’s arguably a golden age for nonprofit, grassroots-driven news outlets.

But such heartening efforts are insufficient given the systemic nature of the crisis. As journalism’s commercial era recedes into the past, private capital alone can’t support the media we need, and indeed, it never has, especially for communities of color. Any hope for a democratic future necessitates bolder interventions.

Permanent support for a well-funded national network of PMCs could not only guarantee universal access to quality news and information, but also empower local communities to tell their own stories and make their own media. Free from economic imperatives to serve owners, investors, advertisers, and wealthy audiences, PMCs could devote more coverage to pressing social problems, especially those important to poor, working-class, and BIPOC communities. Permanent beats and teams of journalists could focus on often-neglected issues, from the plight of immigrant communities to mass incarceration to the ecological consequences of global warming.

While governments would have an affirmative duty to establish and fund PMCs, they must remain independent and radically democratic in all editorial decisions. Political independence requires economic independence, and public media should mean public ownership of media, including worker-run cooperatives and other forms of collective governance.

Historically, news media have too often served powerful interests and protected the status quo. But given the right structural conditions, journalism can become a force for social jus­tice and systemic change, deeply committed to serving and protecting a vibrant, multi-racial democratic society.

Journalism’s transitional moment could be transformational — but only if we reinvent our news media, not resuscitate failing commercial models. As a starting point — one that may take many years to actualize — newsrooms must be governed by journalists and local communities instead of absentee capitalists who treat journalism merely as a commodity, not a public service. This vision requires that we see the radical and utopian as also the practical and necessary. Only then can the Public Media Center be an idea whose time has come.

Victor Pickard is a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

In 2022, we will confront a stark choice: Either we build non-market systemic support for local journalism, or we condemn entire communities to a future of news deserts.

This crossroads will be increasingly unavoidable as unfettered market forces — hedge-fund vultures and other opportunistic pathologies — continue to devour what’s left of local media. Commercial journalism’s dissolution calls for radical thinking toward bold new models.

A long-term utopian vision can help us imagine entirely new kinds of journalism that are liberated from the market to privilege people over profits. Universal yet accountable to local needs. Federally guaranteed yet owned and controlled by the communities that newsrooms serve and the journalists who work there.

We might call these publicly funded news cooperatives Public Media Centers (PMCs). As a new community anchor institution alongside schools and hospitals, PMCs could serve as primary building blocks for a post-commercial media system that’s both democratizing and impervious to market failure.

Kernels of this alternative system already exist within community infrastructures, including public access cable outlets, public broadcasting stations, libraries, and even post offices. We could imagine PMCs organized as municipal newspapers and multi-media hubs that produce a wide range of news and information. And we could fund them democratically via programs like the Local Journalism Initiative that are decentralized and less vulnerable to state capture.

Some signs suggest U.S. society is moving in the right direction. Congress has finally come to see the journalism crisis as a problem for public policy, even calling for media subsidies that were inconceivable a decade ago. At the same time, numerous independent experiments have launched in recent years during what’s arguably a golden age for nonprofit, grassroots-driven news outlets.

But such heartening efforts are insufficient given the systemic nature of the crisis. As journalism’s commercial era recedes into the past, private capital alone can’t support the media we need, and indeed, it never has, especially for communities of color. Any hope for a democratic future necessitates bolder interventions.

Permanent support for a well-funded national network of PMCs could not only guarantee universal access to quality news and information, but also empower local communities to tell their own stories and make their own media. Free from economic imperatives to serve owners, investors, advertisers, and wealthy audiences, PMCs could devote more coverage to pressing social problems, especially those important to poor, working-class, and BIPOC communities. Permanent beats and teams of journalists could focus on often-neglected issues, from the plight of immigrant communities to mass incarceration to the ecological consequences of global warming.

While governments would have an affirmative duty to establish and fund PMCs, they must remain independent and radically democratic in all editorial decisions. Political independence requires economic independence, and public media should mean public ownership of media, including worker-run cooperatives and other forms of collective governance.

Historically, news media have too often served powerful interests and protected the status quo. But given the right structural conditions, journalism can become a force for social jus­tice and systemic change, deeply committed to serving and protecting a vibrant, multi-racial democratic society.

Journalism’s transitional moment could be transformational — but only if we reinvent our news media, not resuscitate failing commercial models. As a starting point — one that may take many years to actualize — newsrooms must be governed by journalists and local communities instead of absentee capitalists who treat journalism merely as a commodity, not a public service. This vision requires that we see the radical and utopian as also the practical and necessary. Only then can the Public Media Center be an idea whose time has come.

Victor Pickard is a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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