Harvard law professor Martha Minow on the state of the news business today, and why she thinks the government should play more of a role.
Digital journalism has been with us for over 35 years — yet the news business still hasn’t figured out how to adapt to the creative destruction of the digital world.
What started out as news products for free and the democratization of information via lower barriers to entry, today is a chaotic business trying to figure out subscriptions, recurring- revenue business models, nonprofit news, a changed role for advertising, and where news fits in amid the impact of social media
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Martha Minow. Currently a professor at Harvard Law School, she was the dean of the Law School from 2007 to 2019, and is herself a graduate of Harvard University, the Harvard School of Education, and Yale Law School, where she was editor of the Law Journal. Once talked about as a possible Supreme Court appointee, she clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
She is also the daughter of Kennedy-era Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Newton Minow — known for referring to American commercial television programming as a “vast wasteland” in a speech he gave to a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961.
According to Minow, the biggest problem facing the news business today is the collapse of the business models that support local news. While the national media thrives, and star journalists are doing great, in local communities — and even in major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami — news media are under siege. Predatory hedge funds are buying up these assets and strangling their available resources, leaving little or no money for improving the news product.
Many small cities have become news deserts. These are communities where public institutions like school boards, city councils, and water boards go unreported on. In Minow’s view, that is an invitation for currupton.
She discusses possible solutions: a greater role for government in news dissemination and alternative forms of news distribution, such as citizen journalism and community-supported nonprofit platforms.
And she talks about how the profession of journalism could be redefined, and how legislation currently working its way through Congress might actually strengthen its economic underpinnings.
She also looks at ways in which social media — often seen as the enemy of news — could play a positive role in local news.
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Jeff: Welcome to WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. For journalism, it may be the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, the national media is more vibrant than ever. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as broadcast and cable news networks are thriving. For these outlets, the transition to digital has been painful, but successful and is still ongoing, as it was recently announced by CNN and NBC News that they would be moving to a streaming model.
Today, The New York Times derives more than 60 percent of its revenue from digital subscriptions. Recurring revenue models are driving the success of independent and specific news outlets and individual journalists on Substack and similar platforms are thriving. While romantics rap quixotic about the 23 newspapers that once were available in New York, websites and Twitter have now subsumed that, and new sites start up regularly with lower barriers to entry and what some argue is a greater democratization of information.
For local news, however, the story is different. For what’s happening in your neighborhood, your school board, your city council, is a very different story. Thousands of local newspapers and local radio stations have shut down. The economics of the enterprise has proven to be unsustainable, and even large regional papers in places like LA, Chicago, and Miami have proven to be problematic. While many of the best of these papers have been stripped and plundered by hedge funds, let’s also remember that many were acquired by the hedge funds out of bankruptcy.
All of this begs the question as to whether our political, cultural, and social divide stems from the top as is assumed, or whether the hollowing out of news in our communities, something that should be bringing us together, is at the heart of what’s wrong? If so, does the government have a role to play in fixing that effort? Further, is the problem with the product, with the public, or as it is often so easy to do, should we just blame social media? We’re going to talk about all of this today with my guest, Martha Minow.
She’s the 300th-anniversary university professor at Harvard. She served as the Dean of the Harvard Law School between 2009 and 2017 and has taught at the law school since 1981. She’s been called one of the leading human rights scholars and one of the world’s leading figures in bringing legal ideas and scholarship to bear on issues of identity, race, and equality. She is the daughter of former FCC Commission Chairman Newton Minow and has degrees from the University of Michigan, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Yale Law School, where she was editor of the Yale Law Journal, and she clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
It is my pleasure to welcome Martha Minow to the program to talk about her new work Saving the News: Why the Constitution Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech. Martha Minow, welcome to The WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Martha: Thank you so much.
Jeff: When we look at the news today, when we look at the state of journalism today, in your view, where is the biggest problem that we face?
Martha: I do think you put your finger on the crisis in local news, that’s a major problem. Then I think we have a combination of the assault on the business model of the news industry that has come largely from the internet. It’s not just social media, it’s Craigslist. It’s all different ways that advertising is sold. It’s also the cultivation of an attitude among all of us that we get whatever we want in terms of information free, instead of paying for it. That attacks the subscription model.
Those are major, major problems. I think that the traditional media was too slow in adapting to the digital realities but we also have internet platform companies that are in essence subsidized by the government by being given an immunity from the kinds of liabilities that attach to all other media enterprises for violating basic norms of tort law, contract law and so there’s a little bit of blame to go around.
Jeff: Isn’t that blame, though, kind of tinkering around the edges because when we talk about business models, and I’m not talking about local news, we’ll get to that in a minute, but when we’re talking about the larger framework, these companies have constantly adapted to the changing landscape. Advertising revenue did go away from news, even from institutions like the Washington Post and the New York Times, but those companies over time were able to pivot and are now relying on subscription models. We’re seeing that even individual journalists are able to make a living and some of them quite well off subscription models just on newsletters. There has been a pivot to the business reality for news.
Martha: For a few leading national organizations, that is true, but as you lead and note it, even for such aghast institutions as the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, they have faced enormous challenges. These are not just small local enterprises. The question is whether this pivot is going to be workable for all of the different providers that are necessary to produce an informed democracy.
Jeff: Talk about local news and the way in which it has deteriorated and where you see the problems there.
Martha: The Pew Charitable research organizations came up with the phrase, news desert, which sadly describes now thousands of communities across the country where there’s literally no one who is reporting on what is the local school board doing? Is there lead in the local water? Is there corruption by local officials? That is because the local papers proved unsustainable or they were purchased whether out of bankruptcy or not by either chain organizations or by private equity organizations that proceeded to plunder them and shrink the fads so that they really have become almost non-existent, and in many communities literally non-existent. This is a major crisis.
While you can go online to get national news, you can maybe go online even to find out where you can get a COVID vaccination. You can’t go online to create the watchdog press, that has been the heart blood of really accountable government and accountable businesses in local communities.
Jeff: Talk about where you see the responsibility for that, and some of the solutions that you believe are necessary in order to address these local news deserts and the reality of what you’re talking about.
Martha: I’m a fan of private enterprise and I have no beef with investors from outside of a community if they buy a paper, but if they strip it of all of its content until no one will subscribe to it, which is happening in many communities, I think that that is really irresponsible behavior. It is, however, a reflection of the expectations that many have of double-digit returns on investment. Many of the papers that have gone under were in the black, they were not running deficits, but they weren’t running the kind of return that many people in the investment world demand and expect.
Another problem is that I think readers, consumers, they have lost the willingness and some places the ability to pay for subscriptions, and local advertisers have migrated to other forums. The traditional mechanisms for funding local news have been one by one by one decimated. What are the possible avenues? I think that there are many. I think there are many things that can be done. I don’t think there’s going to be a magic bullet. I don’t think there’s one size fits all but I’m very intrigued to see that the Internal Revenue Service allowed The Salt Lake Tribune to turn into a nonprofit organization in 2019.
That means that it can receive donations, and those donations are tax-deductible to the individuals who make the donations. I think this is an example that is going to be followed by many others so that a mix of income from sponsors and from subscribers and from tax deductions, and also foundations could help to sustain some local news organizations. I do think that there’s also the possibility of national support for this kind of idea, even for entities that continue to be organized as for-profits.
Pending in Congress right now is The Local Journalism Sustainability Act. This bill that has bipartisan support would give people the ability to deduct the expense of a subscription to local news, as well as donations to local news. It would also grant relief to the news organizations from payroll tax when they hire journalists and it would further allow businesses to deduct the expense of advertising on local news.
The real virtue of this model is the government is not deciding anything about what should be funded and what shouldn’t be funded. It’s the readers, it’s the users, it’s the local businesses and I think that’s why there’s bipartisan support for it.
Jeff: Looking at local news, to what extent does it come down to the community and the community having the desire for this information and the community supporting the effort either through contributions or subscriptions or even in the business community’s involvement as in the Texas Tribune model?
Martha: Of course, demand and willingness to pay for a subscription or to give donations will make a huge difference. Many of the communities we’re talking about have been decimated by other causes that mean that there aren’t local businesses. There’s a divestment generally or people in the community are really struggling during the pandemic, people lost jobs and had to give up expenses that weren’t absolutely necessary.
I do think that there is a need to cultivate a willingness to pay for receiving news and as some of the national organizations found they had to do but it’s going to be a mix of cultivating those kinds of audiences and willingness to support and getting some help, including help from the government, like tax deductibility.
Jeff: Has the fact that the national media has moved towards this subscription model, that the idea that everything would be free, which is where it all started. The music business went through a similar crisis and the fact that people are now paying for national news, is that setting the stage in a way that is going to trickle down to help local journalism?
Martha: I do think that there’s some lessons to learn there. When Napster and other sharing sites seem to be destroying the music industry, iTunes came up with a model that was affordable for people and it’s been sustainable. I think that there’s a lot to learn there. I think that there may well also be ways that local outlets can share the back office, these fundraising efforts and not have to one by one by one replicate these techniques and yet still have the content development be done at a local level.
Jeff: One of the other things that’s changed with respect to local news is that local radio for a long time played a significant role in getting information to local communities, that’s changed and disappeared as well.
Martha: Quite true. Again, there’s been this aggregation by some entities, by some chains, some organizations and that has in many communities meant that there really is only one option and it typically has a particular political point of view. There is a counter-trend of micro journalism because the barriers to entry are lower. People can have a blog that can cover what’s going on their block. What’s needed is a way to actually get some of those stories into the hands of distributors that go beyond the local neighborhood, because those stories can add up to a big story that has significance in the region, or even in the nation.
Jeff: As these deserts exist and as there’s greater desire in the community. You’re alluding to this greater desire in the community to get this information, we seem to be seeing some of these experiments spring up, some of these efforts like Next store, which certainly is not the be-all and end-all, but an interesting experiment. Some of the things that you’re talking about and the marketplace is driving some experimentation that seems to be helpful in these areas.
Martha: That’s true. Some of it is really taking the place of a community bulletin board, but that could be a hook or a basis for building reporting. In some real respect, it’s the journalism industry or the journalism profession, if you want to call it that, that has been suffering the most. The losses of employment for people who are journalists, that’s been dramatic and those who are stepping up often get no or very little pay for what they’re doing and that’s not sustainable. That’s why we do need to develop some multiple sources of income and that includes public financing, that includes philanthropic financing.
Jeff: What about this idea of citizen journalism that gets talked about so much as an answer to what you’re saying?
Martha: There’s a lot to commend the fact that people have a cell phone and can take a photograph, can help with law enforcement, it can help with celebrating local events. Similarly to blog, the problem is that really does show the strengths and the drawbacks of the lowering of barriers that the internet represents. The good news is there’s no intermediary deciding who is or is not a citizen journalism. The bad news is there is no intermediary deciding who is, or who is not. As a result, you can have a wildfire spread of misinformation, disinformation, libelous information and that’s not good.
Jeff: How do we deal with that within the framework and the experimentation bold and persistent though it may be that we’re seeing. How do we address that part of it?
Martha: It’s hard, but I do think there’s lessons to be learned from earlier eras. There was a period in the 19th century when journalism was really caught up with rumors and maybe disinformation too and yellow journalism was one name given to it. One of the critical responses was the development of a professional identity and ethos among journalists who developed codes of conduct, voluntary codes of conduct that really to this day represent the gold standard for reporting.
Are there two sources for a story? Is there a conflict of interest in someone who’s claiming to be a source and protecting the identity of sources? Those are all voluntary standards that help to professionalize journalism. It may be in time now to do something similar for the online, whether it’s the citizen journalist or the blogger, voluntary would be better than government regulation, but you can imagine that the kinds of benefits that the government gives, whether it’s nonprofit status that allows donations, or it’s something like the immunity of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that shields the internet service operators and the social media from liabilities that attach to the Washington Post.
Those kinds of benefits could be conditioned on the development and compliance with voluntary codes of conduct.
Jeff: Where if anywhere in your view is pushback to any of this? Who benefits from news deserts, from lack of information, from misinformation, particularly in the local arena we’ve been talking about?
Martha: Sad to say, corruption benefits, whether it’s on the part of government officials or private companies, pollution benefits. I was so struck to learn that when Flint, Michigan was identified as a place with lead in the water, the individuals who blew the whistle have reported since that there are other communities with similarly dangerous levels of lead in the water, but they lack the local news. They lack the reporting. Now, so who’s benefiting? Sadly it’s bad forces. Forces of environmental danger.
In Ferguson, Missouri where Michael Brown suffered a terrible deadly violence at the hand of the police, the Department of Justice did an investigation and explored how the local courts relied on more and more fines and fees on the backs of poor people to finance them, one of the things that emerged was that there was no local news. There was no local cable, no local radio, no local journalism that could monitor that kind of behavior.
Jeff: Is the scenario though where social media for example is a benefit? We saw for example, and perhaps the penultimate example of late is the George Floyd video which went on social media, went viral, and changed the world.
Martha: Absolutely. There can be some real benefits, and particularly when it’s something bad has that kind of a reality base. I am not calling for turning the clock back. I think giving the tools to report and to gather information to share it in the hands of ordinary people can be a great boon, but the loss of any kind of intermediary to judge was this a doctored video, was it a real fake as opposed to was it real, that’s a real problem.
It’s led to the kind of disinformation and the kind of galloping distrust. At the moment, most trusted in America when it comes to news are local media and public media. I worry that there’s going to be more and more and more people who just say, “Well, I don’t believe anything that I read or hear because it could all be made up.”
Jeff: Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in that, to your point, in that national media, which is the most mediated, the most examined before it goes out into the public realm, is maybe not the least trusted, but not trusted as much? What does that tell us?
Martha: I think that that reflects the polarization and politicization of the national media. You have some national outlets, Fox News comes to mind, that are so clearly committed to a particular political point of view and that’s contributed to the polarization of the country, but social media in its architecture has as well. Though because the ad market, it benefits by dividing us ever more and more into subcommunities, you get your news feed similarly organized based on views about who you are, which means when you call up with your information, you get something different than I get. We’re not seeing the same stories, we’re not seeing the same news.
Jeff: Talk about that. What, if anything, in your view should address that?
Martha: I think that there are some real obligations on the part of these newly powerful entities to actually protect consumers from manipulation. There are consumer protection laws on the books that are not enforced. There are fraud laws that are not enforced. Those laws could be amplified and strengthened.
I also think that there would be markets, there would be an interest people would have in knowing what is the architecture, what is leading to what I see and what I don’t see. Can I turn off auto-scroll that takes me or my teenager ever deeper into worlds that are not good? What can I do to actually be more responsive and responsible in my use of social media?
Some people have proposed, and I think this is interesting, an obligation of the big social media platforms to share their ATI, their technical digital details to allow the development of a new industry that would allow you and me and all of us to purchase or support curators who reflect our values rather than being ourselves the product of the social media. I think that’s an interesting idea, too.
I think at a minimum, there should be options that the social media platforms provide for all of us that we can say, “No, I would like actually not to have my past viewing patterns dictate what I see now. I’d like to see a selection of goods. I’d like to see a selection of materials. I’d like to not have a changing priority so that I never get to see my aunt’s post anymore because someone thought I wouldn’t want to see them.”
Jeff: From a political perspective though, one wonders if they would be any different because the algorithms do reflect, I mean exactly as you’re saying, the algorithms reflect what you have looked at in the past, the things that have interested you in the past. If you had more of a hand in the curation of what you were seeing, one could argue that in fact, it would be no different because the algorithm is doing the curating as opposed to somebody else doing the curating for you.
Martha: That’s interesting. When asked, a lot of people say they wish they saw more variation rather than just a replication of what they’ve seen in the past. It’s technologically not that hard. A group of undergraduates at the University of Chicago for a project came up with a tool that allows people to see the flipside of what it is that they’re currently seeing.
There are wonderful tools that allow for the reading of the content and can code it and help you see what’s a different point of view or a different take or news about a different part of the world. If we had more control about that ourselves, I think we would see many, many people interested and learning from what others are seeing. What about signing up to see what a friend of yours is seeing or what someone you disagree with is seeing?
Jeff: I wonder if we say that more than we really mean that. That’s of course the key question in that. What in the current landscape, Martha, gives you some hope for all these areas we’ve been talking about?
Martha: I am hopeful that many people are talking about it, that there is legislation that has been introduced, that the IRS did allow a paper to turn into nonprofit status, and that there are groups getting together to support the development of new nonprofit models for news. I’m interested also to see how many students, whether in high school or college are concerned about this and want to either become journalists or citizen journalists or to participate in developing solutions. I think that there is even wonderful developments in public-interest-oriented computer engineers who are concerned about what’s happening to democracy when it’s only the ads that are driving the shapes of the technology. I do think that there are some promising developments.
Jeff: Martha Minow. Her book is Saving the News: Why the Constitution Calls for Government Action to Preserve Freedom of Speech. Martha, thank you so much for spending time with us today here on WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Martha: Thank you. Wonderful questions. Thanks for what you do.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.