HKS Professors Nancy Gibbs and Thomas Patterson of the Shorenstein Center say revitalizing local news can help fix our fractured politics—but it will be a big task that will require massive funding.
Featuring Nancy Gibbs & Thomas Patterson
March 3, 2023
44 minutes and 48 seconds
Harvard Kennedy School professors Nancy Gibbs and Tom Patterson say local news is more than last night’s town council meeting or the high school sports scores. It’s more like civic infrastructure. Like bridges, local news organizations use facts to help people connect with each other over the chasm of partisan political divides. People need reliable information to make important decisions about their lives—Where should I send my child to school? Who should I vote for? Should I buy a bigger house or a new car?—as much as they need breathable air, clean water, and safe roads. Unfortunately, like a lot of physical infrastructure, the local news ecosystem is crumbling. Internet-driven market forces have cut traditional sources of revenue by 80 percent, and venture capitalists have bought up local newspapers, sold off their physical assets, and gutted newsroom staffs. Across America, more than 2,000 local news organizations have shut their doors in just the past two decades. Meanwhile, studies show that when local news declines, voting and other key forms of civic participation decline with it. Gibbs and Patterson join host Ralph Ranalli to talk about how to rebuild the local news ecosystem and, with it, the civic health of America’s community life.
Nancy Gibbs is the Lombard Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Until September 2017, she was editor-in-chief of TIME, the first woman to hold the position. During her three decades at TIME, she covered four presidential campaigns and she is the co-author, along with Michael Duffy, of two best-selling presidential histories: The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (2012), and The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House (2007). She has interviewed five U.S. presidents and multiple other world leaders, and lectured extensively on the American presidency. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University and a master’s degree in politics and philosophy from Oxford University, where she was a Marshall Scholar. She has twice served as the Ferris Professor at Princeton University, where she taught a seminar on politics and the press.
Thomas E. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at HKS. He has authored numerous books, including Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism; How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That's Crippling Our Democracy; and Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? An earlier book, The Vanishing Voter, examined electoral participation, and his book on the media’s political role, Out of Order, received the American Political Science Association’s Graber Award as the best book of the decade in political communication. His first book, The Unseeing Eye, was named by the American Association for Public Opinion Research as one of the 50 most influential books on public opinion in the past half century. His articles have appeared in Political Communication, Journal of Communication, Public Opinion Quarterly, and other academic journals, as well as in the popular press. He received his PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1971.
Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Public Affairs and Communications is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.
The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.
Nancy Gibbs (Intro): We have seen a dramatic decline in the last 10 or 15 years, as we've seen the whole business model across media disrupted to where we are losing two newspapers every week. Half of all counties now only have one local newspaper news source. Usually, it's a weekly. Many of those newsrooms have been hollowed out. There are just fewer journalists working there, performing all of these necessary functions. And in that vacuum, it isn't just that it is harder to access reliable information. Into that vacuum comes all manner of unreliable information. And so all the kinds of forces that are working to divide us or to pursue a partisan agenda have a much bigger playing field when there is not an actual legitimate local news site available to readers in that area.
Tom Patterson (Intro): This decline of the local newspaper has now been going on long enough—a couple of decades—that sadly, we have kind of a perfect situation for social science research of what happens when a community loses its local newspaper. And there've been a dozen really pretty good studies of this; they all come to the same conclusion. It harms the civic health of the community. And on virtually every dimension, social trust goes down. Party polarization goes up. Voting rates in the local elections, not necessarily the national elections, but voting locally declines. Accountability of local officials goes away.
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast. I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. Local news isn’t just last night’s town council meeting or the high school sports scores. Think of it as civic infrastructure. Like bridges, local news organizations use facts to help people connect with each other over the chasm of partisan political divides. People need reliable information to make important decisions about their lives—Where should I send my child to school? Who should I vote for? Should I buy a bigger house or a new car?—as much as they need breathable air, clean water, and safe roads. Unfortunately, like a lot of physical infrastructure, the local news ecosystem is crumbling. Internet-driven market forces have cut traditional sources of revenue by 80 percent, and vulture capitalists have bought and broken up local newspapers, sold off their physical assets, and gutted newsroom staffs. Across America, more than 2,000 local news organizations have shut their doors in just the past two decades. Meanwhile, studies show that when local news declines, voting and other key forms of civic participation decline with it. Nancy Gibbs is a professor and director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the former editor-in-chief of TIME magazine. Tom Patterson is a professor of government and the press and the author of numerous books, including Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism and How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That's Crippling Our Democracy. They join me today to talk about how to rebuild the local news ecosystem and, with it, the civic health of America’s community life.
Ralph Ranalli: Nancy, Tom, welcome to PolicyCast.
Tom Patterson: Well, thank you.
Nancy Gibbs: Nice to be here.
Ralph Ranalli: We're talking about local news. And the rich tradition of local news, traditionally in the form of newspapers, in the United States goes back to the country's founding. Some of my favorite descriptions of the role newspapers played in the creation of American democracy were written by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat and political scientist who observed American culture in the early 1830s and published Democracy in America, which is considered a seminal work of political science and sociology. And he wrote, "In America, there is scarcely a hamlet which has not its own newspaper.” Of the local press as an institution, he said: "Its influence in America is immense. It is the power which impels the circulation of political life. Through all the districts of that vast territory, its eye is constantly open to detect the secret springs of political designs and to summon the leaders of all parties to the bar of public opinion.” Can you both set up our conversation a little bit by talking about what local news and newspapers have meant, over the centuries now, to America and American democracy?
Nancy Gibbs: Well, there was a reason why in de Tocqueville's time, newspapers were effectively heavily subsidized by the young American government through low postal rates. And that was because of a sort of Enlightenment faith in the importance of an informed citizenry and as a key to participatory democracy. I think it's important when we're talking right now about the local news crisis, though, to make a distinction between newspapers and local news. If every last newspaper disappeared tomorrow, that would be sad—even a sort of tragedy in a sentimental kind of way. But it wouldn't be an emergency, as long as there were other sources of accessible, reliable, relevant local news. The problem that we are facing is that there are so many communities now that do not have access to any form of local news, whether it's digital or in print. And there are all sorts of serious downstream effects on that for the health of our communities and our country. And so that's why when we talk about the local news crisis, we're not just talking about newspapers.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. Newspapers back then are sort of what we would call news organizations now because the distribution channels have changed. Tom, what’s your view on what local news organizations meant to American democracy over the years?
Tom Patterson: So let me go back to de Tocqueville. And Nancy's quite right that the postal rates were very, very favorable to newspapers. And we have to recall, of course, that most people lived in the countryside. They didn't live in a city or town or a hamlet even. So to get the newspaper out, the postal service was there as the distribution. The other form of subsidy of the newspapers back in this period were the political parties. This was the era of the partisan press. And local newspapers were very dependent on party patronage. And that patronage came in, usually, in the form of government printing contracts. And you got them from one party, or you got them from the other party. And so, they sort of aligned themselves on one side of the political fence. And their content reflected that.
But Tocqueville also observed—even though they were aligned with one or the other party, and therefore, you'd think there were kind of two songs they were singing—he also said, and this is pretty close to a quote: "And they all fight under their own flag." And what he meant by that was that they were local. Yes, something was going on nationally that brought them into the partisan fray, but the real value was to the community, and basically to be able to talk about these issues as well as the local issues, not just simply the national issues, in a local way, in a way that really connected to the community. And in some ways, if you think about ... what binds communities? Well, one thing, we're all Americans, and there's some commonality that goes with that. But newspapers traditionally have been the common bond in the community, shared information being the basis for people thinking that somehow they're on the same ship. And there have been some really interesting studies; this decline of the local newspaper has now been going on long enoug—a couple of decades—that sadly, we have kind of a perfect situation for social science research of what happens when a community loses its local newspaper. And there've been a dozen really pretty good studies of this; they all come to the same conclusion. It harms the civic health of the community. And on virtually every dimension, social trust goes down. Party polarization goes up. Voting rates in the local elections, not necessarily the national elections, but voting locally declines. Accountability of local officials goes away. So the point that Nancy's making about the importance of local news, I think, can't be lost, and it's really central. And then the question is not whether the newspaper is still there, but are there sources of local information that are sufficient in terms of the breadth and the depth of their coverage and also their audience reach to basically hold communities together as civic entities, so they can act like communities?
Nancy Gibbs: I think one of the challenges is we still think about the newspaper business and newspaper barons. And Pew did a study that found that something like 71% of people think that their local news organization is doing just fine. If people don't even know that the house is on fire, how are you going to organize a bucket brigade? And so, there's an urgent need just for public education about all the evidence that Tom cites for why communities should care, including that public spending goes up and bond ratings go down when that accountability function disappears. There are political, social, economic reasons why the stakes are very high, and yet, most people are not even aware that this is happening and that they are literally paying a price for the disappearance of local news where they live.
Ralph Ranalli: So let's frame where we are now. Fast-forwarding 200 years from de Tocqueville, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that more than 2,000 local news organizations have closed in the last 20 years. Nancy, I read a piece you wrote which stated that 1,300 "Potemkin sites that mimic authentic newsrooms have popped us across the country and taken their place." How would you both describe the current situation, the house that's on fire, for people who don't necessarily understand how dire the current situation is?
Nancy Gibbs: We have seen a dramatic decline in the last 10 or 15 years, as we've seen the whole business model across media disrupted to where we are losing two newspapers every week. Half of all counties now only have one local newspaper news source. Usually, it's a weekly. Many of those newsrooms have been hollowed out. There are just fewer journalists working there, performing all of these necessary functions. And in that vacuum, it isn't just that it is harder to access reliable information. Into that vacuum comes all manner of unreliable information. And that's the so-called pink-slime sites that you're referring to, which look like a local news site and read like a local news site. They are funded by dark money with a partisan agenda. This is coming from both the left and the right. And so all the kinds of forces that are working to divide us or to pursue a partisan agenda have a much bigger playing field when there is not an actual legitimate local news site available to readers in that area.
Tom Patterson: So I'm a little more concerned, I think, about the decline of newspapers than perhaps Nancy is. The writing is clear. I mean, they're going away. And in part, it's because their business model has eroded. A piece of that erosion is us. We're simply less interested in being newspaper readers. Now, the problem with that is that the newspaper is sort of unlike any other form of communicating about news. The newspaper had breadth and depth. And we don't see it in these other news outlets. For instance, if you looked at a 30-minute newscast and put all those words on the front page of a newspaper, it would barely fill the front page of a newspaper. So we're talking about really losing many layers of talking about what's happening in the community when the newspaper goes away. The problem is, it's really hard to think about. ... Not so hard to think about alternatives, where we could look to for local news, digital startups, paying more attention to local public radio, which is an established entity and they've been pushing out into the digital area. We could ask more of local television news. There are possibilities out there. The problem is that, at the moment, none of them kind of compare with the traditional newspaper as a source of content about what's happening in the community. So it's not simply just kind of a one-for-one substitution, but we also have to figure out how to make the newer outlets, the places where people who we know are going to be getting their information 10 years from now, 20 years from now, making them more robust. So it's actually a double challenge, really.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. During my journalism career, I was in those local and regional newsrooms as a reporter and an editor. And I saw how we were the organizations with the big staff. We were the ones who went out and did the original news gathering. And we were the ones who set the news agenda. And it was really the radio and the television stations who followed our lead. Now, with that eroding ... for a lot of reasons, the decline in advertising rates. Craigslist stole classifieds. Google and search engines and Facebook stole display advertising.
Nancy Gibbs: Zillow has the real estate listings.
Ralph Ranalli: Zillow has the real estate listings. And speaking of government subsidies, I was listening to a podcast the other day with the publisher of Editor & Publisher. And he was talking about how one of the few local news revenue lifelines left is legal ads, because those are statutorily bound to go to a local news organization. Well, I want to talk more about funding in a minute, but Tom, first I’d to go back to this point you made about public radio infrastructure. You just released a research paper where you suggested taking a new look at the public radio network, which has a lot of stations, and its ethos over the years has been to bring news to underserved communities, often rural communities. Can you describe how you came to the conclusion you did that this was a place where possibly something could be done to revitalize local news?
Tom Patterson: Well, if you think about it, local public radio is kind of perfect in terms of the way it maps across the country. Those signals reach 98% of the American population. So in terms of just an outlet through which you can reach Americans, it's really hard to think of one that's much better, that's local in its organization. It's also a fairly trusted brand, although increasingly, in our very partisan age, trust looks a little more blue and a little bit less red. But still, compared to other news outlets, there's trust. They've got a brand which gives them an advantage over a digital startup because they already have the reputation and then so on. So in some ways, they're very well positioned when you look at them from one angle. But then when you start digging into the interior of these stations, then your optimism diminishes pretty sharply. Three-fifths of them have 10 or fewer people on news staff. And that's using a very generous definition of what constitutes staff. So they have a student intern. That counts as staff. Part-time staff. That's the way we counted it. And you can't do very much. And then we related to, so okay, if you have that small a staff, what can you do? And the answer is, you don't do a lot of original reporting. You can't afford to have someone constantly looking at local government. It's even hard for you to make the digital transformation. You barely have enough people to do something decent in the broadcaster traditional outlet and the likes. So that's the question, right?
What's the answer? It's money. You simply have to get these staffs up to the point where there's a critical mass there, so that they actually can do sufficient local coverage to serve the community's information needs. Think about it just in terms of on the digital side. So, I'm a consumer, I'm the average consumer. Increasingly, I really want my news on demand. So I go to the places that offer news. But I go to my local public radio's digital offerings, and there aren't very many that actually deal with my community. And I come back tomorrow, and it's the same ones that were there yesterday. This is a staffing problem. They're not generating enough content. And if I'm looking for national news, I'm not going to go to a local site anyway. They'll never be as robust as the many national news outlets that we have available to us. So I think the answer here is to really think about this as a public resource and what happens to communities. The news crisis that we see is not simply a problem for news organizations. It's a problem for communities. And I don't think local public radio is the sole answer, but it could be part of the answer. But the only way that it can be part of the answer is with substantial new funding with the understanding that we really need to bolster these local news outlets.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. That’s the big question. Our podcast audience can’t see us, but the three of us are sitting in our nice Kennedy School recording studio with a lovely view of Harvard Square, but whenever the topic of saving local news comes up, there’s always a big elephant in the room too. And that’s funding. Where is the money going to come from? People have been working on this issue for a long time. Nancy, can you give us your sense of where that money discussion is right now in terms of funding robust local journalism, what the possibilities are? Are things trending in a way that's in any way encouraging?
Nancy Gibbs: It's a very active debate with a lot, fortunately, a lot of creative and entrepreneurial thinking going on. That ranges everything from legislative initiatives that recognize the importance of local news as a civic asset and are exploring things like tax credits for subscriptions or payroll tax credits for newsroom employees. So there are legislative interventions. There are very active conversations within the philanthropic community, as Tom was suggesting, and around the future of public media and of local, place-based philanthropy. I think most communities, they may think of the importance of supporting their library or their hospital, or their symphony orchestra. They don't think of their newspaper as every bit as vital to the health of their community and something that needs their financial support.
Ralph Ranalli: Right, I think we have to rearrange our thinking to view news, local news, as civic infrastructure because that's really what it is. It's the information that helps people make good choices about every aspect of their lives.
Nancy Gibbs: So there are those who think that we've now had 15 years to find a new business model with very mixed success and that the future is entirely in philanthropy. There are others, and there is ... again, it is great that some of the major philanthropic institutions and individual philanthropists are looking very seriously at this challenge and what their role is. And there's, of course, a robust debate over what kind of philanthropy and directed where and how. But there is also an argument to be made that the market enforces a kind of discipline on organizations. That is also an important piece of this. And I think newsrooms need to reckon with what kind of news their audience wants and delivered in what format. And so just investing in the creation or expansion of local newsrooms and thinking only about the supply side and not having to think about the demand side risks missing an opportunity to really move forward on this issue. We really need to understand better how people's information diets have changed dramatically in the last five years, how people's attention spans have changed, the extent to which more and more of the information that we consume is visual rather than text-based and is certainly digital rather than print-based. We know that. But it is more and more likely to be shorter and more visual or in audio. And so the need for research and understanding and data about the demand side, I think, is the other side of this equation that is really important and not just what kind of supply of information is going to be most valuable.
Tom Patterson: So let me make a point about both the supply side and the demand side. On the supply side, I think we're talking here ... if we're really going to put local news back in a way where it's really robust across the country and local communities, we're talking about a lot of money. This is not a small pot of money. This is not something that we can look to philanthropy as being just solely the answer to it. To put that into a little bit of relief, if you think about newspapers before all of these things started to attack their business model and Craigslist taking away the classified advertising, and so on... They were pulling in $50 billion. America's newspapers pulling in $50 billion a year in revenue. It's now down to $10 billion. So there's a $40 billion gap there. And it gives you a little bit of a sense of, "Oh, this costs money." I mean, the one problem I think is there's not an appreciation about—to do news well costs money. This is not an enterprise you can do on the cheap. Really good reporting takes a lot of staff time, a lot of editing time thinking through these things to put all of that together into something that then is distributed to a community on a daily basis. That's not just a small amount of dollars. So I think we have to look to philanthropy to do some redistributional thinking. They've got so many causes that they're trying to deal with. Important ones. Climate change, refugee crises, and so on. But somewhere in there, I think they've got to bump up community news, and that needs to be a larger part of their portfolio. But I do think we have to look to the digital winners also as a possible source of funds here. And that could be on the philanthropic side. You look at who have been the big winners from the digital age, many of them have made their wealth at the expense of the traditional media.
Now, what's interesting about those people, most of them actually have a pretty significant philanthropic spirit. But, at least at the moment, not much of that is going into local news. But then you think about Google and the degree to which it dominates advertising. Much of that advertising has come at the expense of newspapers. And some kind of tax on some of these media giants actually would yield huge amounts of money to support local news. So I think we're going to need our government. I should say governments, actually, because state governments actually have a role they could play here too. But I think we're going to need to look to government to fund a significant amount of this. And I think if anyone really should begin to understand the importance of local news, it's members of Congress. When they get to the point where there's no mouthpiece around that they can go to when they want to talk to their constituents, they're going to understand the problem. So I think there is a possibility of some really important things happening on the legislative scene. The problem is that always takes time. And on the media, we have this split between Republicans and Democrats, which compiles the problem, makes it harder, I think, to get this sort of thing done in the Congress. But I do think without some kind of government intervention in the form of some kind of form of taxation, maybe targeted and the like, I just don't see where they'll ... You'll get more money, but I don't know that we can get enough money to really have robust information local systems.
Ralph Ranalli: Government funding or not is an interesting issue. First, it’s pretty fraught because sense of where we are in terms of partisan polarization. I remember being in some of the discussions about revenues when I worked in public television. And we were always talking about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting subsidy. And there were a vocal minority of us who viewed it as more of a millstone than a boon because of the constant threat that a Republican Congress or a Republican administration would come in and cut the subsidy. And some of us thought it fostered almost a sense of self-censorship where we didn't necessarily want to rock the political boat to the point where you might lose the subsidy. And then you have on the political side, you have the generalized distrust of government and government intervention in the Republican circles in terms of the Republican polity. And if you ramp up government support for journalism, do you risk being able to pull some of those people back into this fold where we're sharing the same facts and not separated into echo chambers? Are there ways to use public funds and taxation to get you where you want to go, but without those side effects that you don't want?
Nancy Gibbs: I think there will be people who don't like this, but it needs to be ... The government can't be picking winners and losers and picking which newsrooms they fund. That takes us back to the 19th century. And so, if you had a kind of payroll tax credit, you would have to reckon with the fact that Alex Jones Infowars is eligible for it too. Or how do you draw the parameters of what counts as a newsroom and what doesn't count as a newsroom? And my guess is you would have to draw those parameters really broadly. That includes what might be considered very partisan media on both the left and the right, and just contend with that as part of the reality of using the tax system as a subsidy. But I think there is also bipartisan support behind a lot of these legislative initiatives. And as Tom knows better than anyone, in a lot of very deep red states, the public radio is the most trusted news source. Local news is more trusted, generally. Local television, above all. Local radio than local newspapers. And you get to sort of the national papers, networks, and cable news at the bottom.
And I think one reason for that is a lot of news is not partisan. I was traveling last week, and I always try to watch local news wherever I am. And the lead story was that day's community celebration of local first responders. And these are the stories that define and pull together a community, and they don't really ... everyone is glad that there were firefighters and ambulance workers there when there is an emergency. That's not a left-right thing. And so, the extent to which local news is the most trusted delivery and information source, I think there is also a value in the fact that it is much less partisan typically than national news, than more national news sources are. And so, there is a way to figure out forms of public subsidy that are agnostic about the partisan bent of the news organization. Is that wrong, Tom?
Tom Patterson: No, I think that's right. And I think there's this very powerful argument now because we have really good evidence of what happens to communities when local news dries up. And I think you can make that argument earlier. If you look at the way that legislatures work today, we may think they're simply just driven on partisanship and kind of blind loyalty to partisanship, but on some of these types of legislation—and I think part of what we're talking about here is in that category—they are evidence-driven. And we have really good evidence now on the cost to community when local news dries up.
I was going to make a point earlier, and I neglected to make it. This is on the demand side. Nancy's entirely correct in talking about how we sort of overthink the supply side and underthink the demand side. But on the demand side, one of the things that's happening, even though we kind of have more trust in local news, if you look at more people are spending more and more of their time, they're actually spending more and more of their time on the national news sites and less and less of their time on the local outlets. And that goes, I think, with the nationalization of politics, the fact that these national news organizations like CNN, New York Times, they really have a lot of resources. They do news very, very well. So if you're browsing and you go to their site, there's good content there. My point would be, I think there's the interaction between supply and demand. If the local news content is pretty sparse and not all that good, that's going to diminish demand for it, even if that's where people are, have the greatest interest in terms of what they think matters in terms of their life, where they put trust in the media. But if there isn't the content—that's why people go to the news. I mean, why do people bother going back to the news day after day after day? Well, we want to keep abreast of what's happening. But if the content isn't there, if it's not telling us what's happening, at some point, we say, "Well, I'm going to go to some someplace that's going to tell me what's different about today than yesterday."
Ralph Ranalli: So, turning to business models for a minute, a lot of the innovation on these startups that are popping up on local news has been using the non-profit model. And I think one thing we've seen in terms of the for-profit model at the local level has been a frightening level of vulnerability. And I'm talking particularly about venture capital groups like Alden Global Capital, where you essentially have a giant hedge fund coming in, buying up local newspapers and news organizations with this kind of slash-and-burn ethos, where they just sell off the assets and then they run them at a diminished level until they finally die. To them it’s not civic infrastructure, it’s just another asset to dismantle. Is it time, at least on the local level, to just admit that the for-profit news model has had its time and it's time to go in a different direction, which seems to already be happening in a way with the rise of these nonprofit models?
Nancy Gibbs: Well, you definitely have seen individual philanthropists like Gerry Lenfest in Philadelphia and Stuart Bynum in Baltimore who have worked to save a legacy newspaper like The Philadelphia Inquirer from being acquired by one of the hedge funds. There's been an enormous, as you say, enormous amount of consolidation in the industry. And a lot of it is hedge funds taking over and just bleeding these organizations for their assets. But I think that there is an obvious middle ground between wanting to prevent a kind of vulture capitalism from hollowing out these newsrooms and saying: "There is no profit possibility. There is no revenue model. Everything has to be philanthropy." And again, I go back to there is a discipline that comes with looking for a sustainable model where you are creating a product for which there is an audience that they see as being valuable and are willing to pay for whether through donation or subscription or whatever form. I think that the discipline of having to pay attention to: “Is what we are doing valuable enough to the people we are trying to reach that they are willing to pay for it in some way?" And so, I'm wary not just because, as Tom has emphasized, the scale that we're talking about requires such an infusion of money but also because I think it is part of the equation that news and information is valuable. It is something that people need.
One of the problems we have seen is that as more and more news organizations are depending on subscriber revenue models, they put content behind a paywall. And then you have this information gap where people who can afford access to good information have it, and people who can't don't. And so, many of the so-called news deserts where there is no reliable source of local news. It tends to be places that are already underserved, where the economy is already struggling and can't sustain a local news organization. It may be that those are the places where more philanthropically driven outlets are most important. But in our urban areas and in other communities, there is audience and revenue available. So I think it has to be a flexible, hybrid, not one-size-fits-all answer to the problem.
Tom Patterson: I think if you think about philanthropy ... With some exceptions. I mean, there are some newspapers that basically are thriving today or at least alive today and doing reasonably well because someone with a significant amount of personal wealth made it their mission to keep that organization going. But if you think about philanthropy as being the underwriter, philanthropy usually has a half-life. So it may keep you going for three, four years, but when you have to sustain it at a high level, oftentimes, that dollar is not going to be renewed every year. And what we're seeing, honestly, is that these for-profit models aren't becoming kind of indistinguishable when you look at the ledger from the nonprofits. It's kind of the no-profits and the nonprofits that are operating in many of these spaces.
And it's not only the VC people that are cannibalizing some of the newspapers. Sometimes it's longstanding owners who realize their day is ending, and they're trying to capture as much value as they can before they close the door. All of these things, I think, point to the crisis that we're talking about and the urgency of it. And we do have to work really hard, I think, on the demand side. The demand for national news is getting stronger, I think, than the demand for local news. And we really need to think hard about why that's the case. Is that simply a supply problem at the local level, or, as Nancy suggests, is it also a community information problem? Do communities need to be alerted more to the value of local news and their role in sustaining it? Which means being a subscriber, being a listener, being part of the solution to the problem. So I don't think there are any easy answers in any of this that we're talking about. And the scale of the problem is so immense that this is going to take quite a lot of time and kind of an all-hands-on-deck mentality if we're going to work this through in a really satisfactory way.
Nancy Gibbs: I would say the good news is there's a lot of, first of all, real awareness of the urgency. That has changed significantly just in very recent years. And a lot of really creative entrepreneurial energy. You brought up earlier that public legal notices are one of the last remaining reliable revenue streams. I'm advising a group of former students who are building a platform. It's led by a kid who is a fifth-generation newspaper family from Kansas named Jake Seaton. And Jake and his team are building a platform to make the placing of those notices much easier and faster, to remove the friction in order to help these local newspapers take that revenue more easily. There's lots of brain power and urgency going into creative solutions to this, lots of entrepreneurs starting up new sites and new kinds of delivery systems, including news via SMS. I think all of these experiments—there are a thousand little laboratories around the country. So the important thing is that we are communicating with each other, that we're coordinating and discovering what's working, what's not, and why. It isn't that there's one solution that'll work in every environment. But the fact that so many people, both from the academic and the philanthropic and the private community, are focusing on this problem, I think itself speaks to some real opportunity for solutions to it.
Ralph Ranalli: But do we need to be careful about philanthropy? Because in one sense philanthropy is just another way of saying sources of concentrated wealth, and I can see a few problems there. For one thing, we’re saying that saving local news is all about preserving democracy, but at the same time we've seen a lot of studies out of the Kennedy School and other sources that concentrated wealth has played a significant role in diminishing democracy. Also, we also have a serious influx of concentrated wealth that has come in and taken charge of the news business ... I mean, if you just look, you've got the Washington Post owned by Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk owns Twitter, which is generally the journalists’ sort of social media tool of choice. News Corp is owned by ultra-conservative Rupert Murdoch. John Malone, who owns the parent company of CNN, a major Trump donor. Randall Smith of Alden Capital, another major Trump donor. I heard someone say once that, "Billionaires don't make donations. They make investments. You may just not realize what they're investing in right away." So how do we make sure we are able to have a robust conversation about the intersection of democracy and concentrated wealth when concentrated wealth owns the media?
Tom Patterson: Well, I would distinguish between philanthropists too. I mean, many of them do have a pretty significant agenda. It is an investment of a certain kind. But we've also seen some of these really large efforts that are coming out of, in terms of if you look at the former real principal shareholder of Microsoft, and what's been done there in terms of trying to deal with health in Africa and the like. I mean, I think we kind of underestimate the agreement to which some of these issue areas really are much more important than shaping exactly what is being done in each of those areas to advance the ball. I do think there are sections of the philanthropy sector where we ought to be looking for really large contributions.
But one thing we haven't talked at all about here is there is a lingering profit sector at the local level, and that's local television news. And I think places like the Shorenstein Center and other kind of research institutions of the like, when they think about local news, they almost kind of write off local television as a lost cause at the beginning. That it's really about sensationalism and all market-driven content and the like. And that's certainly partially true of that particular part of the local media system, but they still have a very significant audience. There still is a revenue flow there. And the question is whether there isn't some work to be done about thinking about what would be a different model for local television news that would have a deeper kind of public interest component that would also make sense in the marketplace. And there are some stations, a couple in Minneapolis, for example, that basically changed the way that they do things and actually are doing quite well. So how do we do the research that tells these local stations, "You know, you don't have to chase ambulances. There are some other things you can do locally that actually serve the community's information needs better. And actually, you might actually at least hold audience, and maybe you'll even gain some people. And you certainly will be making a larger contribution to your community"? But we're not talking very much at all about local TV news.
Ralph Ranalli: So we're almost at time, but we like to end on this show with actionable, policy-oriented recommendations from our guests. For our PolicyCast listeners, what would your recommendations be about what they can do, anything from advocating to their legislature to what they could do with their personal dollars, to help support local news and local news innovation and to strengthen this vital piece of civic infrastructure? Nancy, I'll ask you to go first.
Nancy Gibbs: Well, to start with, what they can do locally, which I say to everyone, is to subscribe to your local news source and look for any way you can to support it, to communicate when you think it's doing a good job or not. But, as Tom mentioned before, it isn't just at the national level that there are interesting legislative initiatives happening. That is happening at the state level too. And so, for people to explore whether there is the potential for some partnership, some government investment, some tax policy that might be helpful for local community news organizations to encourage that, I think. This doesn't all have to come out of Congress. There are other levers, including within the community itself, to help raise awareness of the problem as a piece of, as we keep saying, of civic infrastructure. We can all help educate one another about the urgency of this and the fact that individuals have it in their power to contribute to the solution.
Ralph Ranalli: Tom, I'll let you have the last word. How can regular folks help?
Tom Patterson: Well, let me speak directly to the study that we just did on local public radio, and let's assume that that's where we're trying to get some money funneled toward. One area that we don't think about very often is state governments as a possible source of funding of local public radio. We think about that annual appropriation that Congress does that funds across the system. But there are actually about a dozen and a half states that provide funding for local public radio within their state. Interestingly, the top three states in terms of the per capita giving to the local stations are red states. They're Republican states. And you might ask, "Well, why is that?" Well, they're largely rural states. They understand the importance of information in these communities about things like weather. What are the commodity prices looking like? Where are those markets going? That kind of information. These are vital sources of information in those states. So rather than writing to a member of Congress—you'll get a response, but it'll probably come out of a file—you actually can have a bigger impact. Drop a note to your state legislator. You're likely to have more impact if you do it that way rather than the member of Congress.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, this has been a really interesting and enjoyable conversation. I'd just like to thank you both for being here.
Nancy Gibbs: Thank you.
Tom Patterson: Well, thank you. It's been very pleasurable. Thank you.
Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Thanks for listening. Please join us for our next episode, when we’ll turn our attention back to the climate crisis and climate-related migration, a little-talked-about but major issue for the future that could see more than a billion people on the move by the middle of the century. If you have a question, comment, or suggestion for our podcast, please email us at policycast at h-k-s dot Harvard dot e-d-u. And until next time, please remember to speak bravely, and listen generously.