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The Future of Journalism

It’s been a tremendous week.  I spoke at Stanford to a class on AI about the impact of AI on the labor market.  I also met with the leader of a think tank about the future who advocates for a form of Universal Basic Income based on assets (e.g., personal data) as well as a prominent CEO who is concerned about the impact of automation.

One theme of my meetings and events is that we need to open more hearts and minds by appealing to people on different levels.  That’s going to be our focus as we visit more of the country, including Iowa in August.

Today I’m off to Seattle for an event hosted by local entrepreneurs and then back to San Francisco for a public event about Basic Income with local activists.

A big story came out this week that raised questions about the future of journalism.  The New York Daily News cut half of its editorial and newsroom staff effective immediately, leaving as few as 40 people behind to cover a city of 8.5 million people.  This is the latest phase of the continuing hollowing out of local news coverage in New York City: the New York Times and Wall Street Journal had already either cut back or eliminated local coverage.  The Village Voice recently stopped printing physical copies and the local news site DNAInfo shut down last year.  “The state of local reporting in New York City is at the lowest depth that I have experienced since I started as a reporter in 1974, and it’s not healthy,” said one long-time editor.

This highlights a fundamental issue – if the economics of local news coverage don’t work in New York City, the biggest market in the country, where will they work?

The answer is clear – they won’t.

For a long time, newspapers were excellent businesses.  The families that ran them became fabulously wealthy and pillars of their communities. It was possible for relatively small communities to have their own dedicated publications and journalists covering local events while turning a profit.

Those days are long gone. Newspapers today are shuttering right and left.  They used to rely on advertising revenue from classifieds – which no longer exist.  This has formed ‘news deserts’ in many parts of the country.  Local online news sites have been unable to generate enough ad revenue to survive – see Patch.  While blogs and commentators proliferate, people are increasingly left ignorant about the goings-on in their communities.

In a democracy, it’s vital that people have access to quality information.  The fact that journalism is no longer market supported doesn’t change the fact that it serves a crucial public function.  The challenge now is to manage the transition from independent for-profit companies to a new model.

As President, I will take this challenge head-on.

First, I will initiate a Journalism Fund to support the transition from independent for-profit businesses to non-profits supported by citizens, local institutions, philanthropy, and government.  This Fund will be operated out of the FCC and will make grants to local media outlets, non-profits, libraries and public-private partnerships to help local newspapers, periodicals and websites transition to sustainability, generally matching existing funds and resources. Public libraries in particular can play an important role here – many already have community bulletin boards where people find out about local events.

Second, I will found a National Journalism Fellows program that will invest in journalists in and from every state in the country.  Fellows would be nominated by an industry body and selected by a nonpartisan commission.  Each State would have as many Fellows as Congressmen (3 for Wyoming, North Dakota, and Alaska, all the way up to 55 for California).  They would each be funded by a multi-year grant and stationed at a local news organization.   Their Fellowship would be contingent on their reporting from a given district and state but immune from any other influence.

Third, I would include Journalism and Reporting as functions that are rewarded by a new Digital Social Currency that rewards people for taking actions that benefit their community. This currency would have real monetary value and thus would allow more writers and bloggers to pursue stories that educate the public.  Readers could reward journalists with micropayments using this new currency, providing a new means of support.

There is much more that we can do.  Journalism is a vital profession for a functioning democracy.  We need hundreds of reporters digging into complex issues and stories to find the truth and share it with our citizens.  If the market won’t support these activities, it’s up to us to evolve and find new ways to support it as a society.

What’s happening to journalism is a microcosm of other changes in our economy.  The market has reduced the value of investigative reporting while rewarding ‘clickbait’ articles and bids for web traffic.  Our trust in media is eroding in part because media companies are responding to financial incentives that debase the quality of their reporting.

We can easily supercede the market on this – other countries fund public media outlets that are world-class.  There is no reason that we cannot fund high-quality journalism in the United States.  We are bigger than the market.  We simply need the conviction and leadership to do so.

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