Victor Pickard On the Future of Journalism

Season 3 Episode 16
Victor Pickard on the Future of Journalism

If we consider the history of the US news industry, it’s clear that journalism has never fully achieved its potential. Now that the traditional model is faced with a complete market failure, it’s time to rethink the business of journalism.

S3E16 / June 24, 2021

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Episode Description

The journalism industry in America has grown and adapted over its 300-year history. Different business models and ownership schemes have been tried, mostly in an attempt to establish an independent free press. Social media platforms have contributed to both the decline in revenue for news outlets and the echo-chamber effect that results when users are only consuming news that fits their political viewpoint.

In this episode of Big Tech, Taylor Owen speaks with Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the Annenberg School for Communication and a co-director of the Media, Inequality and Change Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In his work, Pickard explores how the journalism industry could be transformed to meet the needs of society and support a functioning democracy.

Pickard has studied the different stages in the American news industries’ history, which we explore in this episode, and concludes that there has never been a time when the industry was properly configured to support democracy. The current debates focus on restoring ad revenue sources that have been diverted to social media platforms but, as Pickard explains, small tweaks to the market will not solve the problem. “I think clearly we’re seeing something that is irredeemable, especially for providing local journalism. We don’t need to shore up these commercial models.” Instead, Pickard says, we need to shift away from large corporations that consolidate all news markets at a national level to new funding models that support local community-based journalism.


This transcript was completed with the aid of computer voice recognition software. If you notice an error in this transcript, please let us know by contacting us here.

Victor Pickard: The newspaper industry's original sin was to become so overly reliant on advertising revenue. It's really what set them up for this current crisis. But not only that, it also degraded news content for well over 100 years.

Taylor Owen: Hi, I'm Taylor Owen, and this is Big Tech.

Although this was once hotly debated, it's almost become common knowledge that journalism is now in a state of crisis. The narrative typically goes something like this. For more than 100 years, journalism was funded primarily through advertising, and for most of the 20th century, that model seemed to work. But then Google and Facebook came up with a better ad product and now earn the vast majority of online ad dollars, which really shouldn't have come as a surprise. Why would anyone take out an ad in a local paper when you can make or target the exact kinds of people you're trying to sell to. When that advertising money dried up, so too did the reporting. Newsrooms shut down, reporters were laid off, and many places became news deserts, regions where there's no local reporting at all. And perhaps unsurprisingly, places that have no journalism also have lower voter turnout and more corruption. There's a great deal of hand wringing about the role the platforms played in all of this, that if it weren't for their technological disruption, journalism would still be in its heyday. I suppose there's elements of truth to this, platforms do bear some responsibility. But this narrative belies a deeper, thornier issue, which is that the ad model never really worked that well because it ultimately tied journalism to a for-profit model. If we are going to re-imagine journalism, perhaps we should start with this as a first principle. This idea is at the core of Victor Pickard's work. He's one of the world's experts on the crisis in journalism and media and broadcast policy more broadly. And his latest book is called Democracy Without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society. Victor argues that the market-based model has been undermining journalism since its inception, which means that a new generation of journalism policy such as competition policy, media bargaining codes like in Australia, labor subsidies like in Canada, will only get us so far in addressing this problem. To really get at the root of this crisis, Victor says we need to completely separate journalism from its commercial incentives. Instead of treating journalism as a product to be owned and sold, he argues we should treat it as a public good. There was a time when the very idea that journalism was in trouble was widely debated, but that's no longer the case. Not only is there widespread acceptance that journalism needs help, but policymakers around the world seem to be increasingly willing to do something about it, which means that now more than ever, we should really be paying attention to people like Victor Pickard.

I think there's pretty broad understanding about the dire straits of journalism at the moment, particularly in the US. I'm sure we'll touch on just why it's so bad and how it's gotten so bad. But first, I'd like to talk a bit about how we got here, and maybe we could start at the beginning. How did the founding fathers view journalism?

Victor Pickard: Sure. There's a number of caveats that I think are warranted before we start invoking the so-called founding fathers. Of course, they're not people that we should necessarily romanticize. Many of them were slave owners and certainly were not the most enlightened people on the planet. But one thing that they did understand at least intuitively was the press, the press system, which at that time was very different compared to what we have today. But there was this notion that to have self-governance, you needed to have an informed populace, you needed to protect institutions of the press. Even if we're just talking about pamphleteers at that time, there was this notion that there was an affirmative duty that the government should ensure that there's some kind of free, and by implication, functional press system. And part of this can be seen quite clearly in the first policy debate in the United States in the late 1700s, 1790s, around the postal system. The postal system at that time was primarily a newspaper delivery infrastructure. By the early 1800s, still as much as 95% of the weight of the post was comprised of newspapers. So it wasn't just people writing letters home to mom, it was the circulation of newspapers and of information throughout society.

Taylor Owen: And that intent was embedded in the rationale for it?

Victor Pickard: Absolutely. There was a raging debate about, how do we pay for this infrastructure? Should we ensure that the postal system pays for itself? So in other words, charges individual consumer, subscribers the cost of the post, or should it be heavily subsidized? There was a debate about whether there was this commerce function or should we see the postal system as primarily being part of an educational service. The founders thought that the newspaper, that the press itself, was too precious to leave entirely dependent on commerce, that we needed to subsidize it. Today, we would say this was highly socialistic. But at that time, it was fairly common sensical that you would not depend on the market to provide the news and information that a democratic society requires.

Taylor Owen: One of the big transitions away from some of that subsidization is the emergence of advertising in the industry. In some ways, you argue that some of our blame on platforms for this current moment is a bit misplaced because really they've just perfected a financial model of journalism that is over 100 years old. Now they've done it in a very particular way that has a host of other problems, which we can talk about. But ultimately, the idea that a big portion of journalism is going to be financed via advertising has been around for a long time. Can you describe a bit what happened when American newspapers first moved to this model?

Victor Pickard: Sure. Again, there is some necessary nuance to address here because... In fact, recently, I've received a bit of pushback from people who are very adamant to point out that advertising was around from the dawn of the press system in the US. In fact, many of the earliest advertisements were for slaves. So, I want to be clear, there was advertising. But early on, the earliest newspapers, there was much more of a diverse revenue stream. But once you saw this transition, this dramatic shift towards this reliance on advertising revenue, that's when you started seeing mass production. This is when publishers wanted to reach broader audiences. And this is where Gerald Baldasty notes a change in content where publishers no longer saw their audience as primarily citizens of combatants within a polity, but more saw them as primarily consumers. This gradually changes the content, changes the basic business model of the press. It changes everything. Now, again, sometimes maybe it's overstated and it didn't change overnight. But certainly by the early 1900s, typically a newspaper relied on 80% of its revenues from advertising, 20% from subscribers or news stand sales.

Taylor Owen: And that advertising component includes classifieds then, right?

Victor Pickard: That's right. That also includes classifieds, which is also an important point for our contemporary moment when people are very quick to blame Google and Facebook, which I think they do deserve a lot of blame and we'll get there I'm sure.

Taylor Owen: We'll sweep through history before we get there...

Victor Pickard: That's right. I'm so keen on that. I think it's really important for us to historicize this. And because few people understand this longer history... I mean, I've somewhat flippantly referred to this as the newspaper industry's original sin was to become so overly reliant on advertising revenue. It's really what set them up for this current crisis. But not only that, it also degraded news content for well over 100 years. Whenever we hear this thing about yellow journalism, I mean, that really was like the fake news problem of the early 1900s and it was all a product of this over-commercialization, this idea that we will do anything, we will sensationalize stories, we need to just capture people's attention so that we can monetize that.

Taylor Owen: I mean, that connection between financial incentive and form of content is so critical throughout this discussion because it becomes relevant again, and I think now as well, that the way in which you make money does to some degree play a role in the actual outcome of the content. You write that "at that moment, in this transition, it became common for mass circulation media to simultaneously attract working-class audiences and promote reactionary politics via trivial, sensational, and untrue reporting." I'm sure that was around before, but if this was being turbo-charged by the financial model, that's a pretty big harbinger for where journalism went, right?

Victor Pickard: That's right. I'm describing the newspapers late 1800s, early 1900s, and it sounds very familiar to us today. There's always a risk of over-simplifying, being overly reductive, whatnot. But I think the bigger problem is that we often don't see these connections between content and structure, especially economic structures, economic logics, and imperatives. Again, I think you need to understand that to understand what happened to the industry today and to show also it really drives home that we never had an ideal press system, not in the US, not in Canada. Really, there are very few places around the world. I think we could say there are varying degrees of horrible news production. But yeah.

Taylor Owen: Is that a quote? Varying degrees of horrible?

Victor Pickard: I hope not. It's not a very good one. But yeah, I'm trying to really put this into context, that there's no need to romanticize some golden era of the press. There were times where it wasn't as bad as it is now and I think we can allow for that nuance, but also recognize that the commercial press never lived up to democratic requirements or expectations and it's only gotten worse. I think that's key. Because oftentimes when people hear me today saying, "The journalism crisis, we've got to do something," they assume that I'm talking about going back to a previous era or trying to shore up the model that we have today. I'm advocating for nothing of the sort.

Taylor Owen: Another lore of journalism is around professional practices that emerged soon after that transition. One of the narratives that you hear often is that there was sort of this enlightened moment where journalists decided that things like objectivity and fact checking and moderation to some degree were going to be values of the practice of journalism. But you have a slightly more cynical view of that. Why did journalists all of a sudden start caring about being more moderate and being more objective and being less political to a certain degree?

Victor Pickard: Sure. I do think some of it was very well-meaning, so I don't want to always sound cynical. And I think at some point you'll start hearing my optimism come out.

Taylor Owen: Again, we'll get there.

Victor Pickard: Okay. But for now, let's just be dark and cynical. This history is often narrated as a cultural progression or just like democratic evolution that the press got better at what it was doing, became more socially responsible. But this really misses this key part, which again goes back to these economic imperatives that were driving almost the entire newspaper industry. You were beginning to see a public backlash. We mentioned yellow journalism. That was being hurled at newspaper publishers for irresponsible journalism, for these commercial excesses that were becoming increasingly evident. So really, to stave off this public outrage, but more importantly to stave off any kind of regulatory intervention, this is when you see the leading journalism schools become established, this is when you see a lot of these professional norms begin to be further defined. It was really a way for editors and publishers to sort of placate the public and policy makers and say, "Look, we are professional here. We're being responsible in our coverage. We're being objective." And some of these principles are really important. As much as objectivity needs to be problematized, and I think it's been thoroughly trashed in recent years, this whole notion, this farcical notion of objectivity, but things like fact-based reporting, that's important, we want that. We don't want that to go away. So, some of this was actually a good attempt to try to buffer professional journalism from these commercial pressures. As soon as those things came into place, you start seeing the commercial pressures chipping away at them. So I think it's an important history to put into that context.

Taylor Owen: So what you're really is, objectivity and norms of professional journalism were the Facebook oversight board of the early 20th century?

Victor Pickard: One could certainly draw a parallel there. Yes.

Taylor Owen: All right. So, another layer aside from commercialism or commercialization that comes into this, certainly in American context, is ideology. It feels, like particularly in the post-war period where much of the world was moving towards and expanding the role of public broadcasters and various forums of regulatory oversight of journalism, America was both locked in to this commercial model, but also was dealing with all sorts of ideological debates around socialism and a red scare. Is that the moment that this idea, this free market ideology of journalism that seems to pervade American journalism took real root.

Victor Pickard: The short answer is yes. I mean, that's when it really triumphed. It was already there, but I do think what you see in the '40s, it's such an important historical point to make that I hear made so rarely is that where most democratic countries were heading down this social democratic trajectory, not only were they beginning to create... I mean, of course the BBC had already been around, but they're really starting to bolster their public institutions. It's one of the reasons why we don't have nationalized healthcare in the United States, is that we also, in many ways, were going down that same social democratic trajectory. Look at the New Deal, that's precisely what it was trying to do and it was very popular. It's a very popular project. So whenever you hear about how Americans are just inherently libertarian, that's really not grounded in historical fact. We were heading towards a much more social-democratic arrangement when we had this Cold War hysteria that hit us, that many countries dealt with to some degree, but hit us really hard here in the US to the point where even the most mildly regulatory leaning proposals were branded as some sort of socialistic cabal. It basically left this lasting imprint on all of America's core infrastructures and systems. It's one of the reasons why we don't have more of a public-oriented broadcast system. It really changed the debate dramatically. I don't think you can make sense of the current political economy in the United States without looking at that key, critical juncture in the post-war 1940s.

Taylor Owen: Fast-forwarding again a little bit a few years, the tail end of that Cold War period is really where we saw the rise of cable news and the role that played in reshaping again much of the journalism landscape in the US.

Victor Pickard: I mean, first I guess I wouldn't quite leave the '40s yet, because I think to make sense of that, you really need to look at especially around broadcast policy in the states which was about radio, but it's quickly mapped onto television as well. Basically, we had a system that was dominated by an oligopoly of two or three big broadcast corporations. What's interesting, one of the more radical things that the 1940s FCC, Federal Communications Commission, did in the states was essentially trust bust, NBC, broke NBC into two, and that's how we got ABC. So we went from two big players to three big players, which I won't leave your listeners in suspense. That really can-

Taylor Owen: That wasn't transformative?

Victor Pickard: It didn't transform the landscape.

Taylor Owen: The market didn't click into place?

Victor Pickard: Not quite. Didn't quite usher in the great democratic promise that's always been there. I mean, if you think back to the '30s when reformers were pushing for creating... Calling it BBC would be an exaggeration, but they were trying to set aside a huge segment of the spectrum to just non-profit educational purposes. That was closer than people realize. That was in '30s. By 1934, we lost that battle. The next one was, "Okay, we've got these big, bad monopolies. We got to break them up." That only went so far. Then it was, "Okay, now we've got to regulate the hell out of these firms." And they fought hard on that and-

Taylor Owen: And regulate the content, right? Not just-

Victor Pickard: That's right. I mean, it was always tricky. There was always concern, again that troublesome First Amendment thing, we don't allow for government censorship. But there were some key Supreme Court decisions that said, "No. In questions of the public interest, the FCC can make programming regulations." And they tried to do that and they came close to actually creating a meaningful social contract in the mid-forties. One of the key players in that, Charles Siepmann, also played a role in Canadian broadcast policy history. He worked for the BBC. He was the programming director in the UK for many years before he came to the state. So this guy was the Johnny Appleseed of progressive policymaking and he pushed this thing called the Blue Book. Long story short, they were unsuccessful and we ultimately ended up at the end of the decade with what was later referred to as the Fairness Doctrine. That's the one policy that most Americans have heard of, they don't really understand what it means. Even among progressives today, that's held up as a high watermark of enlightened, progressive media policymaking. At the time, it was seen as a weak consolation prize for these more meaningful structural policy interventions that reformers were pushing for.

Taylor Owen: So what did it do and what were people pushing for beyond that?

Victor Pickard: Well, what it replaced was known as the Mayflower Rule, or the Mayflower Doctrine, which basically forbade broadcasters from politically editorializing altogether. I mean, our landscape would look very different today if that had remained on the books. Again, the public was very much behind these stronger content regulations. It wasn't like the public saying, "Get government out of our media, get it off our backs." They were actually asking for more regulation. "We've got to keep these commercial broadcasters in line because we know what's going to happen if we don't have any guardrails. This system is going to go off, it's going to become completely out of control because it's commercially-driven, it's profit-driven. We need public interest protections." So the Fairness Doctrine, what many people do is they conflate it with what's known as the Equal Time Rule, which is like, "Oh, there are two sides to every debate, you've got to give the same time each side." That's not what it was. That's something different. What the Fairness Doctrine mandated was that broadcasters in order to hold on to their monopolistic rights to the public airwaves must cover controversial issues of local importance and to do so in a balanced manner. So it was this affirmative duty. Wasn't about having a balanced debate, it was about going out and covering important stuff, important issues, and make sure we have many different perspectives on these issues. Finally, get to your question though, during this long Cold War that never went away, but certainly flared up in the 1980s, cable news came out as this feisty alternative. I mean, it was almost like community media. It was not this big corporate-driven thing that it is today.

Taylor Owen: And it wasn't on the broadcast. It sat outside of importantly, right?

Victor Pickard: That's a key point. The whole rationale for being able to regulate the public airwaves is that they are indeed owned by the public. So once you started moving to this cable format, wasn't using the airwaves, was actually using a cable, those regulations no longer applied and they've been able to use that to their advantage. So, for example, people say, "If we could just bring back the Fairness Doctrine," which was thrown out in 1987, "that'll solve all our problems." Well, that doesn't pertain to cable television, so that wouldn't help us, I'm afraid.

Taylor Owen: Why did we throw the Fairness Doctrine? What was the political moment in which that occurred?

Victor Pickard: That was around in 1987 during the Reagan administration. It was very much a top-down endeavour. It's another historical narration that's gone a little bit awry. Even among conservatives, conservative activists came to really rely on the Fairness Doctrine because they used that to get their voices onto the airwaves as well. So it was really this group of economic libertarians, especially represented by Mark Fowler, who was Reagan's FCC chairman, he's the one who famously said that televisions are more than toaster ovens with pictures. He would say things like, "The public interest is simply what the public is interested in. There's no special category." And this was really this shift towards a more libertarian paradigm that really took hold in the '80s, and in many ways is still the dominant paradigm today. I think it's under increasing strain here in the United States, but it was another critical juncture that put us down another path.

Taylor Owen: And we're certainly in a very different place now. I want to talk a little bit about the particular dynamics at play in the current media ecosystem. But before we do so, I wonder if you could just summarize the root of your concern and the costs of this decline on our democracy.

Victor Pickard: Sure. And again, it's still a fairly depressing tale. We haven't gotten to the optimism yet. I mean, we all learn in school that democracy requires a free press. This is something that's fairly intuitive. But I think that there's a disconnect from learning that in school and then really thinking about in real time what is happening to our journalistic institutions and what that's doing to our democracy. And now we have, especially here in the US but I know these problems are being dealt with in democratic countries around the globe-

Taylor Owen: Absolutely.

Victor Pickard: We have these communities we're increasingly referring to them as news deserts that have lost all local news media whatsoever. So we have these natural experiments where we actually can test what happens when a local community loses its local newspaper. We're finding, no surprise, we're finding that fewer people are voting, there's less civic engagement, there's higher levels of corruption in local governments. There's even fewer people running for office. I mean, there's just subtle shifts. Even if these aren't necessarily direct causal relationships, we can certainly see this correlation where losing the local newspaper is harming local democracy and civic life. And I think gradually, this is still a fight that we're having everywhere, but I think we're slowly realizing that the market alone is not going to provide the journalism that we need. I mean, basically going back to what the founders of the US Republic already knew, but I think it's really driving home that there is not a purely commercial future for local journalism. If we could just internalize that into our policy debates, I think that would be a real progress.

Taylor Owen: So let's dive into the policy debates then, because there are many, and as you say, different countries are approaching this challenge in different ways. I think in some ways, we're in this almost golden age of journalism policy now. I want to talk about a few things that are being debated in this space. But first, just based on that market failure point you ended on, one theory here is that it is a market failure, the market has led to these negative externalities, and therefore the solution is to fix the market. So we don't need to talk about state subsidizing journalism or public journalism, which we'll talk about, we just need to make this market more efficient. That's in a way what Australia doing with their media bargaining code. I talked to Rod Sims a few weeks ago and he's really making that case. Look, there might be all sorts of other policy things we can do, but the first thing is we need to make this market work, and to make it work, we need certain interventions in the competition space. So, do you think that's adequate? Do you think we can just fix the market and then the problem will solve itself?

Victor Pickard: Short answer is no.

Taylor Owen: Short answer to a long question.

Victor Pickard: That's right. But to unpack that just a little bit... And you're absolutely right. I'm clearly very fond of using market failure as a framework to understand what's happening, partly simply because people get it, it defines the problem very succinctly. But you're also absolutely right that there are some hazards with adopting that framework, and purest neoclassical economists will think of... Oftentimes in textbooks, it's like this small paragraph of these rare occasions when the market isn't working the way it should that will necessitate government intervention. We just need to do a little tweaks at the margins and things will go back to the harmonious status quo. I am very clear to say that I identify what I refer to as systemic market failure that's basically baked into the commercial media system. You're never able to get rid of it. The best you can do is create public alternatives to the market-based model. The second best is to constantly have these public interest interventions protections to prevent these very predictable problems, right? These aren't things that just came out of the blue. But you're right that for purest neoclassical economists, they can just say, "Well, we just need to do a few little tiny nips and tucks here. It'll be fine." I think that's the wrong way of looking at it. I think clearly we're seeing something that is irredeemable, especially for providing local journalism. We don't need to shore up these commercial models, we need to create some kind of public alternative here.

Taylor Owen: So is that the difference between a systemic market failure and just a problem of market concentration? Is that where you would draw that line? Maybe competition policy can deal with these concentration issues, but those are only a part of the systemic market failure.

Victor Pickard: That's right. I mean, it could be put differently that these aren't just monopoly problems, these are also capitalism problems. I mean, I'm a fan. I think that the antitrust clubs should be on the table in full view of everyone at all times. It should be something that should be used more often. A few years ago, I had a great conversation with Lina Khan actually who was just recently appointed as the chairwoman of the FTC, which is incredible. This is where optimism starts coming in here. Yeah, it's a really big deal and she's amazing and she gets it, and so I agree with her views. And she once cautioned me in using the market failure framework precisely for these reasons, that it treats the market as something outside of society, that it's like this autonomous thing that every once in a while needs a little bit of tinkering, but it works on its own. She wanted to reframe it as, "This is based on political decisions. It's a social construct. We as a society design these markets, construct these markets, and that's really what policy is really all about." So, yeah. To go back to your question, I do think too often, this all gets reduced to a problem of market concentration. In many ways, it's the commercial logics. And sometimes, this comes into play around Facebook, the question of, would this be different if we had 10 Facebooks instead of one? What do we get by breaking things up? Sometimes I think we should, but we just have to be very clear about what problems that will fix and what problems that won't touch.

Taylor Owen: What you're really arguing for is bigger systemic solutions to what you're calling systemic failures, and the root of that is increasing the role of public media. This is something, as you say, that other countries have been much more comfortable with, although to varying degrees over the past 100 years, but is an anathema in the American debate. So, could you outline just broadly what you mean by public media?

Victor Pickard: Sure. I use it very expansively, but also with the notion that I mean publicly-owned and controlled. So not just public in name only, I'm not just talking about NPR and PBS here in the states, which is what most Americans would think of. But I'm thinking of media that is funded directly from the public. There are various ways of doing that, whether it's through taxes, whether it's through individual vouchers. There are many different ways of doing this, but the idea is that you're essentially taking journalism out of the market, it is being publicly funded, it is not for profit, and it is driven by this public service mission that means universal service, universal access, that really provides a baseline level of news and information for all members of society. Even when we're talking about non-profit, because a lot of times there's conflation of nonprofit and public, non-profit is still usually privately supported, whether it's a foundation or a benefactor or even individual subscribers. That's still a private institution.

Taylor Owen: We don't talk about that enough. There's a real sense that things like ProPublica or the Marshall Project are replacing public broadcasters. They're not. I mean, they're great, but they are-

Victor Pickard: The argument.

Taylor Owen: ... as you say, they're privately funded, and that brings with it a whole set of issues.

Victor Pickard: That's right. I would trace this back again to that moment in the '40s where I just feel like the political discourse, these ideas, these social democratic ideas that some things are too precious to leave entirely dependent on the market or on private providers. We don't even have this vocabulary in the US. We don't really have a vocabulary for market failure anymore in the US. Our entire discourse has been impoverished to the point where our political imagination is so constricted that most Americans would never make that distinction between non-profit and public, and I think it's a very key distinction. The non-profit initiatives, which many are so fantastic, and this is another reason for hope right now, because there is this golden era, this proliferation of these non-profit experiments, but that's not a systemic fix to this journalism crisis. That's not going to make sure that all communities have access, that all news deserts suddenly have some local news media. No matter what your ideological predisposition is, I simply don't see another way of doing that other than through a public system.

Taylor Owen: Let's talk about the mechanics of the design of that. I mean, we have the CBC in Canada, so I think when people hear here about public broadcasters or public journalism, that's broadly what people imagine. Of course, public broadcasters were built for a different era as well.

Victor Pickard: That's true.

Taylor Owen: So, what does a public option look like in the internet age and the world of platforms and our current media environment?

Victor Pickard: Yeah. This is where I would start to get wildly utopian and go from cynic to crazy idealist. Basically, the ideal would be for there to be a public media centre in every community that basically makes sure that there are local journalists covering local issues, that is publicly accountable, that is owned and controlled by local communities. This should be federally guaranteed, but locally governed. We could think of it as like a post office. In fact, one of my proposals is to convert post offices into these public media centres. And they also should provide municipal community broadband services. That would be-

Taylor Owen: Almost back to their original role.

Victor Pickard: That's right. There's something poetic about that. Yeah. In fact, this isn't just like pie in the sky. There is a thriving public media centre in Urbana, Illinois, in the middle of the cornfields where I did my graduate. They actually bought the local downtown post office building and it serves as this community media hub to this day. This is like proof of concept. There are over 30,000 post offices across the country that's public infrastructure. We could put it to good use.

Taylor Owen: I mean, I guess I'm trying to get a clear picture of what this would actually look like in practice. I mean, does it mean I would consume it on TV? Does it mean I would listen to it on the radio? Does it mean they'd be publishing on Facebook? All of the above? This is-

Victor Pickard: All of the above. And that is part of the problem too, as you already noted that when people hear public broadcasting... In many countries, not just the US, public broadcasters traditionally have not provided local journalism, local news coverage. They're more of a national service. So this really would be a restructuring, a repurposing. And there are individual public broadcast stations around the US that have already started doing this. In fact, they even call themselves public media, not public broadcasting. That would be the shift, but I also think local control is important. Here again, I'd pull from some concrete history in the US, an experiment during the Johnson administration, that one of the more controversial things he did in his antipoverty programs was to have these community action programs, which basically these programs had to be at least to some extent run by members of the community. Basically, the communities themselves who were receiving the funds were also involved in determining how those funds were being allocated. I think the same thing would apply to these public media centres. That's key. That also cuts against this constant, though legitimate concern, that as soon as you have direct public subsidies, it's going to become state owned and controlled, and we have to make sure that can't happen.

Taylor Owen: I want to talk about that challenge of bias in funding. I have lots of concerns around it, around platform funding initiatives for journalism as well. We're getting into this moment, certainly in the Canadian debate and similarly in other countries, where we may have two dominant funding mechanisms for journalism outside of direct commercial interests. One is a labour tax credit that the government put in place. You mentioned vouchers. We went the subsidization route, right? That we will write off 30% of journalistic labour. But the consequence of that is that somebody has to decide who's a journalist, and that arguably creates certain incentives and whatever. But the other place we're heading is in part a consequence of the media bargaining code in Australia, is this rush of platform funding going into the journalism space. And it's happening around the world. It is opaque, we don't know how much is going for what, we don't know what conditions are being put on this money, and there are now reports of journalistic organizations getting 20, 30% of their total revenue directly from platforms. There's a real problem there. It was a very long way of asking, if the market isn't going to solve this problem and we're going to rely on subsidization of various forms, what's our mechanism for preserving journalistic integrity in either of those models?

Victor Pickard: Yeah. That's a great question and I share your concerns about this. We've talked about this back in the before times. I mean, again, you can always say, "Is this better than nothing?" And I think you could say, "Yes, it is." Our news organizations are desperate, we need to find money for them somehow. But there's such an easier, better way of doing this, which is to have the platforms put their money, whether we're just flat out taxing them or however we're coercing them, put their money into a public media fund so that it's not going directly back to the commercial publishers, many of whom are themselves complicit in this journalism crisis. One way of thinking of it is democratically laundering this money, right? We're democratizing the resources and then making democratic decisions about where... We can make sure that money goes especially towards news deserts or to marginalized communities that have never been well-served by the commercial system. I feel like that is a key point that I'd like to see happening. British reformers have proposals like that. It's not like no one's coming up with that idea. But unfortunately, the knee jerk response is like, "Oh, we just have to have what's happened in Australia, is that platforms need to give more money back to the publishers." That's not how we should be framing this.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. That idea of a trust of some sort or some sort of intermediary that is responsible for the money, either from governments or from platforms or any significantly interested group, just seems so obvious. I just don't know why that's not more of a dominant part of this discussion. Surely, journalists, of all people, should be skeptical of industrial money come flowing into their institutions without constraint and without oversight.

Victor Pickard: Its a disconnect, even the most left-leaning journalists, when it comes to taking money straight from government, they become hardcore libertarian. No way will they do that.

Taylor Owen: Oh my God! The biggest pushback against the labour subsidy in Canada was from journalists who were aghast at this option, and yet they're taking huge money from platforms now.

Victor Pickard: Right. They'll take money from platforms, from advertisers, from corporate entities, and so-called benevolent billionaires, but for some reason... I mean, we should be concerned about direct money going from government to media institutions, but it's not an either/or here. I mean, we can create, as you say, these intermediaries, or as long as it's being democratized, it's going to other to local entities, to autonomous groups not connected to the government, there are ways, there are safeguards put in place. A lot of democratic societies around the world have figured this out with their public broadcasting systems. I think we can do this around our publishers as well, but it's going to... Again, this is like a discursive, almost like a psychological problem that we have to contend with, as much as it is just a policy issue.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. One other concern I have a lot about this journalism discussion and the subsidization of journalism conversation is that it's really focused on the supply side of the problem. There seems to be an assumption in a lot of these conversations, particularly among journalists, that more journalism is the solution to a whole host of these problems. Some of that I find can miss the challenges in the ecosystem itself, and that just flooding Facebook with [more] journalism, if it doesn't reach an audience and isn't amplified within the ecosystem, might just be putting good money after bad. I'm wondering if you see this problem of funding journalism in this broader context, where we really need to get at some of these structural incentives inside our ecosystem as a whole which means looking at broader governance ideas than just making sure journalism exists.

Victor Pickard: That's right. And again, part of this is the framing problem. But if we're looking to just shore up these failing commercial models, you're absolutely right. If we just pump more money into that, it's just going to create more noise. It's not necessarily going to change the quality of our news content. But if we radically restructure the entire system from the ground up, I think we're going to produce a different kind of news content, different kind of journalism. And really at the end, that's what I think our ultimate objective should be, is to reinvent journalism, not just go back to some golden era. It's really liberating journalists to be journalists, but also to make sure that they are serving the communities that they purportedly serve. We can do this if we do change those incentives and we unhook journalism from the market, from these commercial imperatives, and democratize the institutions.

Taylor Owen: So, just one last, final closing here. I mean, whenever you end up in a place where it's a capitalism problem, or it's a systemic failure problem, the solutions are pretty big paradigm shift. I think that's a real thread in your work, which is that this is about changing markets, it's about changing society. These are big things that aren't going to be tweaked away and requires ideological shift as well. I think you position yourself in one, a place in that ideological spectrum that is getting increasing voice at the moment, big progressive solutions for big structural global problems. I wonder what you think about this moment. Is it exciting that we're having these debates? We're talking about the Green New Deal, we're talking about public options for media, we're talking about massive infrastructure plans. What's going on here and is it exciting?

Victor Pickard: It's exciting. It's also a terrifying moment, especially when we think about the health of our planet and the future for our children. But I agree with you. This is where my optimism really starts coming through. Especially when I talk to my students and younger people today, they're not enthralled to market fundamentalism the way that previous generations have been, and also because the problems are becoming so glaringly severe that the scope of these problems require radical measures, radical alternatives. So I do take some hope from all this. And I've just seen experimentation, things are moving. Increasingly, I'm able to say, "Look, this is working. Look what New Jersey just did with their local journalism. Look what's happening in Colorado. They have this chain of non-profit cooperative news organizations." I mean, we're going to be seeing more and more of that polling data is showing that people actually... even Americans actually trust public media, relatively speaking, more so than other outlets, they care about their local journalism. We do need a Green New Deal for journalism, and I'm hopeful that we'll see something like that in the next few years. But otherwise, we know what's going to happen. We're going to keep watching the market drive journalism into the ground, really making the case for these radical arguments that this is what happens if you just leave it up to the market.

Taylor Owen: Well, I'm sure glad you're working on this and pushing the debate forward. So, thanks for talking about it.

Victor Pickard: Thank you, Taylor. Really enjoy talking to you about this stuff.

Taylor Owen: Hopefully in person sometimes soon.

Victor Pickard: Yes. A lot of this stuff deserves a beer or a whiskey, so I hope we can do that in person.

Taylor Owen: In celebration or commiseration, one or the other.

Victor Pickard: That's right. Exactly.

Taylor Owen: All right. Thanks so much.

Victor Pickard: Take care, Taylor. Good talking to you.

Taylor Owen: That was my conversation with Victor Pickard.

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