Building on the extraordinary work of our News Voices project and our victory in establishing the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, last year Free Press created a new team to focus specifically on journalism policy.
Our goal is to win the kinds of structural reforms to U.S. journalism we believe are necessary for a democratic society. We want journalism to provide everyone with truthful, relevant, accessible information. We want journalism to represent communities fairly and facilitate civic dialogue to collectively address social problems.
And as the state of local journalism continues to deteriorate at an alarming pace, there’s an urgent need for bold solutions.
Facing the challenge of media power
Across the country, resources for news reporting are drying up, newsrooms are shuttering, media workers are losing their jobs in an increasingly precarious labor market, and communities are losing critical platforms for information access and civic dialogue.
Meanwhile, the resulting information vacuums create the perfect environment for social alienation, public distrust and the spread of misinformation. We’re dealing with a bad situation, and it’s especially bad if you care about our capabilities for democratic self-governance and social progress.
But we’re no nihilists here at Free Press.
The severity of journalism’s breakdown not only beckons our responsibility as media activists, it also invites us to consider more deeply the role media policy can play in building something better — and to organize the right coalitions to make that happen. On the one hand, circumstances have become so unmistakably grim that in just the last couple of years journalism policy has risen on the public agenda from utter non-recognition to an issue eliciting widespread attention from policymakers, who have introduced a flurry of bills in Congress.
The downside, however, is that this emerging policy discourse — and the legislative proposals it has produced — has focused overwhelmingly on propping up big incumbent media companies, all the while sidestepping the fundamental question of how public policy might bolster the information infrastructures our communities actually need to thrive.
That asymmetry is no mere accident. It’s a reflection of who has the organizational capacity, know-how and resources to influence decision-makers in Congress and state legislatures. In other words, it’s about who has the power to make things happen in line with their values and goals.
The scale of our nation’s journalism breakdown is massive; it is actively harming workers, local communities and the American democratic project writ large. And in spite of all that, it’s extremely likely that whatever policy reforms come out of the current moment won’t address the concerns of those most affected — unless and until those constituencies get organized and build collective power. So that’s where we started.
Developing a collective analysis
At the end of last year, Free Press launched the Media Power Collaborative (MPC), an organizing space for media workers, movement organizers and allied researchers to build a shared analysis for the future of journalism — and to win transformative public policies. We are fortunate to have cultivated so many fruitful relationships over the years, and after we announced the MPC’s launch over 150 people from around the country signed up to join!
Building collective power is long, hard work, and we’ve learned from past struggles that organizing for media reform comes with its own particular difficulties. The most immediate challenge is how to mobilize a cohesive constituency when the tentacles of the journalism crisis are spread across so many domains of social life. Whether one is concerned with the lack of safeguards for government accountability, or media-worker layoffs, or the spread of disinformation and harmful narratives, they are all symptoms of the same structural pathology, even as individuals may experience them in unique ways.
To build collective power across these different issue areas, we knew we needed to first develop a clearheaded assessment of what the media system is, how it works, and how it alternately serves or ignores our individual communities’ information needs. Out of that learning process we could begin building bonds of solidarity, grounded in shared values and a common purpose. And toward that common purpose we could organize around strategies to exercise power over the public-policy decisions that shape our local-media ecosystems.
In short, we had to begin with political education. As the first phase of a long-term power-building project, our task was to facilitate a space where MPC participants could learn from one another and connect across their common interests. We view this foundation — bringing together media workers, activists, community leaders and intellectuals — as essential to developing policy proposals and crafting effective strategies.
The MPC met seven times over the course of five months. In our first meeting last December, we discussed the MPC’s mission and asked participants to share their “story of self.”
Drawing on activist-scholar Marshall Ganz’s theory of public narrative, the story-of-self exercise asks us to identify key points in our lives that compelled us to put our values into action. Ganz notes that this process lays the ground for collective leadership by “mobilizing sources of motivation, constructing new shared individual and collective identities, and finding the courage to act.”
From this starting point, we proceeded through three modules organized, respectively, around the past, present and future of media-reform activism. Each module consisted of two sessions. In the first session, we hosted panels of leading scholars, activists and journalists: Brandi Collins-Dexter (Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy), Letrell Crittenden (American Press Institute), Darryl Holliday (City Bureau), Carla Murphy (independent journalist), Victor Pickard (Media, Inequality and Change Center), Nan Rubin (Community Media Services) and Joseph Torres (Free Press’ Media 2070 project).
In the second session, we convened as a group to reflect on the expert panels and other readings. The hard work began in these meetings as we set out to synthesize our collective analysis by elaborating key insights and connecting them with our own experiences as media workers, professionals and community members. This learning process was daunting but bore tremendous fruits.
We began by seeking to understand how today’s media system relates to a longer history of political struggles. Grounding our study in past media-reform movements such as the Black-led effort against segregationist broadcasters, we examined the circumstances that media activists were responding to, the values they mobilized around and the coalitions they built.
Our collective engagement with these questions led us to the following conclusions:
- The current media system is the product of past public policies. Government actions always shape how the media function, often in ways that are indirect and invisible to the broader public.
- Government has an active role to play in ensuring a free, democratic and accessible press — but historically media policy has been used to entrench racial hierarchies, economic exploitation and concentrated power.
- Virtually every historical advancement toward a more equitable media system sprang from journalists, civil-rights campaigners and media activists building collective power and taking action.
- The circumstances that drove past struggles — including the mainstream media’s marginalization of Black, Brown and working-class communities; the tendency to either ignore or malign community-led social movements; and workplace inequalities — closely resemble our current conditions. Many of us identify with the principles animating these historical movements, namely the fight for a democratic public sphere grounded in principles of equality, mutual understanding and self-determination.
From here, we took a deeper dive into today’s journalism crisis, examining the structural foundations of the media system and the role public policy plays in shaping local communities. In particular, we explored the mismatch between the present state of American journalism and our communities’ democratic needs.
Through our discussions, we cohered around the following findings:
- With few exceptions, U.S. media policy has historically constrained the promise of a multiclass, multiracial democracy by concentrating decision-making powers among large media corporations and generally allocating information resources to affluent white communities. The interests of working-class communities, communities of color and media workers are consistently excluded from media-policy considerations, leading to a severe underinvestment in local-news resources, with profoundly anti-democratic consequences.
- As local-media markets collapse and public-media alternatives fall short of their public-service responsibilities, the lone bright spot has been the emergence of independent nonprofit community-media organizations (often led by journalists of color) such as Chicago’s City Bureau, Detroit-based Outlier Media and Resolve Philly. But while these organizations share innovative approaches to serving community-information needs, they lack the financial resources to confront the scale of the structural crisis in local-news markets.
- A pro-democracy policy agenda would invest public funding in community-driven interventions that serve local information needs, redress systemic-information inequalities, and foster a culture of abundance and experimentation in local journalism. This could include public subsidies for local journalism, support for civic-information collaborations with local institutions such as public schools and libraries, and better incentives for investment in local media.
Building the future of journalism
In our final learning module, we looked to the horizons ahead. As MPC members, what future did we want to build together, and how should we go about realizing it? Following our expert panel, we held a dream salon to help us answer these questions. Drawing from several organizing methods, dream salons are participatory workshops designed to ground people in current conditions, share visions for the future and identify the collective work needed to get there.
In the course of our dream salon, several common themes emerged. There was, for instance, broad agreement that policymakers ought to treat journalism as a public good, entailing significant public investments to support local-media ecosystems. These investments would support both news production and universally accessible journalism-training programs and experiments with different civic-information models.
We imagined journalism as a site for community belonging, wherein capacities for newsgathering and public deliberation could be built atop existing civic infrastructures such as libraries, schools and post offices. In a rejection of the resource-scarcity mindset that dominates many discussions of journalism’s future, MPC members dreamed of a public sphere defined by its abundance.
The MPC’s engagement with collective political education has at times been strenuous, but it will prove instrumental as we look toward the next phase of our work together. Moving forward, our task is to leverage this shared intellectual work as we begin to develop policy proposals and hone our organizing capacities. Yet while the MPC’s immediate focus shifts, our underlying purpose remains the same: building power as a collective unit to realize our shared dreams for the future of journalism.