Commentary, Local Commentary

Editorial: Corporate Giants Must Save Newspapers

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar this spring, is the only concrete suggestion for action to preserve local newspapers going forward offered in the wake of CBS News’ “60 Minutes” report on the dying local newspaper industry last weekend.

It was the only included item in the “60 Minutes” online segment that viewers were invited to look at after the TV show. According to the author of the bill, “it creates a four-year safe harbor from antitrust laws for print, broadcast, or digital news companies to collectively negotiate with online content distributors (e.g., social media companies) regarding the terms on which the news companies’ content may be distributed by online content distributors.”

It is, sadly, a vastly deficient answer to the question of dying local journalism. The “60 Minutes” TV segment, entitled, “Headlines, Deadlines and Bottom Lines,” centered on the plight of local newspapers, and, as David Jackson, the former editor of one, proclaimed, “Journalism is necessary for the survival of American democracy.”

Almost any reasonable person agrees with this assessment, especially in the face of the assaults on honest journalism that have come from enemies of democracy like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Yet for a variety of reasons, including the takeover of over 200 local newspapers by a vulture-like hedge fund, Alden Global, that has picked them dry by selling off assets and firing personnel, as the “60 Minutes” report documents, these cornerstones of democracy are disappearing at a frightening rate. Alden’s is a “newspaper-killing business model” according to a congressional report. They are not “just another business,” it was noted, but a unique sort of glue that holds communities together and their leaders accountable.

Insofar as newspapers are the shared medium of countless communities, the very fabric of democracy, those who appreciate the importance of the survival of our democracy need to step up, if even in a self-serving way, to contribute to their survival. We proposed that Fortune 500 and other big corporations pitch in by taking out full page ads in local newspapers. They can be image ads, or educational ones, and they’ll serve the combined purpose of advancing the advertisers and the publications where their ads appear.

This solution is simple, and it goes directly to the survival of an indispensable resource for our free society. Big corporations used to subsidize journalism by enabling media organizations to carry the news with no ads, as was the case in the Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow’s heyday. This new plan would only be a modification of that one, but it desperately needs to happen now.

Today, money hungry media buyers act on behalf of big corporations to place their ads only in the giant media outlets that can return the big bucks to them. This leaves smaller entities out in the cold. These organizations need dollars to maintain the civic trust that they are tasked with maintaining.