We need strong, local journalism

Posted May 19, 2020

By Frank Blethen, Seattle Times

Over the course of 52 years at the Seattle Times, 39 as publisher, I thought I had seen it all in terms of big stories and damaging crises.

Whether they are national, regional or hyperlocal, big stories demonstrate how critical are local media, led by local newspapers, to ensuring vibrant communities. This is an irreplaceable, nationwide system of trusted news, information and community connection during and after times of crisis — the very foundation of our self-government democracy.

Sadly, through the past two decades, we have watched ever-accelerating consolidation, disinvestment and monetizing devastate ​local newspapers.

Newsrooms have been gutted, leaving many communities with ghost newspapers — papers with minimal staffing and almost no local news or relevance. Our nation’s Founding Fathers envisioned a robust, independent, free press protected by the First Amendment and subsidized through low-cost distribution. They did not envision that the value of localism and public service would be undermined by rapacious capitalists who bled their newspapers’ coffers dry.

When the Seattle area became the first U.S. community hit with a case of the novel coronavirus, it didn’t take me long to realize this would be the biggest story of my career. It did, however, take a few weeks to understand that the health crisis had become a catalyst for multiple crises — threatening our economy, democracy and already fragile local free-press system.

Ironically, local journalism has never been more important or sought after. Print and digital readership are soaring, even with fewer journalists. To be sure, there are other important voices in a community’s news and information ecosystem, but none have the scale or impact of the local print and digital newspapers: They still create 60 percent of all local journalism content, even though they comprise only 25 percent of news outlets, according to a 2018 Duke University study.

This year, local newspapers must cover four crucial stories for their communities: the pandemic, the imploding economy, the national election and the free-press crisis. It’s hard to imagine Americans’ ability to cope with the first three unless we throw a lifeline around the fourth — a lifeline targeted at keeping local newsroom employment intact through year’s end.

Ideas for urgent, short-term newsroom preservation and for a long-term subsidy are bubbling in the District. Some are better than others and linked directly to keeping journalists on the ground. The most effective should be embraced, and it’s critical that the effort be bipartisan. Saving our free press and our democracy is not a partisan issue. To aid in this effort, last year I helped launch the Save the Free Press Initiative, based at our newspaper.

The first priority must be stopping the tsunami of newsroom layoffs around the country and keeping local journalism alive. By far the best proposal we have seen would provide every local newspaper a one-time grant of $50,000 per newsroom employee to sustain employment levels through the end of this year. The grants would be available only to publishers willing to commit to maintaining or addin to their local staffs; those who cut employment would have to return some of the funds.

This straightforward solution would ensure more high-quality coverage of the pandemic, the economy and the fall elections during a period likely to be among the most critical in our nation’s history.

Congress would then have seven months to create a permanent solution by following the example of our founders. Knowing they had to find a way to protect the people’s access to information, our nation’s early leaders created the First Amendment, which includes the right to a free press. And to make news available to the masses, they ensured the ubiquitous distribution of news at low cost through the U.S. Postal Service.

That postal subsidy is gone, and we must find a new one if we want to preserve our free press. The best and simplest solution would be what we would call a Local Free Press Fund — dedicated to supporting local journalism and fed by a tariff on the advertising of two big platforms, Google and Facebook, which profit from the journalistic efforts of papers to which they pay nothing. For example, a study by the News Media Alliance estimated Google made $4.7 billion from news stories it displayed in 2018.

Allocation of funds should follow the short-term relief program above — based on the number of newsroom employees. This would create a stable base. And its effects, I am sure, would ripple out from rejuvenated newspapers to more engaged communities and, potentially, to an improved sense of national purpose.

In this crucial moment in American history, who will be the members of Congress who step up and, like our Founding Fathers, ensure the people can remain informed?

Frank Blethen is publisher of the Seattle Times and a founder of the Save the Free Press Initiative.