The year journalism and capitalism finally divorce

2023 is the year that journalism and capitalism finally break up. Their relationship has always been fraught, but now it’s turned toxic — culminating in a messy dissolution as the retreating market hollows out newsrooms, leaving millions of Americans bereft of local news.

Virtually the only for-profit firms still interested in the local news business are the hedge-fund vultures, like Alden Global Capital, that pounce on dying newspapers to profit from their scraps. Meanwhile, all manner of media organizations — CNN, Twitter, Meta, Gannett and BuzzFeed — are laying off significant numbers of workers. Others, like The New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, are trying to discipline their workforce into submission by refusing to bargain in good faith on fair labor conditions.

To make sense of the news industry’s wild fluctuations, we often turn to cultural explanations about the evolving tastes of audiences, or point to technological disruptions, or indict the misdeeds of individual media owners such as Elon Musk and Rupert Murdoch. But one key culprit almost always eludes scrutiny: capitalism.

It is capitalism that incentivizes the degradation of our news media — disinvesting in local journalism, weaponizing social media to capture our attention and data, and devaluing media workers’ labor conditions. All the while, commercial media outlets treat news as a commodity, not a public service, and audiences as consumers, not engaged citizens.

Much of what we decry in our media is symptomatic of the underlying capitalist imperative to maximize profit above all else, social costs be damned. Deprived of a structural analysis of the American media system, the easiest villains for critics to pinpoint are the billionaire bad boys, the latter-day press barons who do nefarious things. But they’re epiphenomenal of a deeper structural pathology. Namely, a media system founded on unregulated, oligopolistic, hyper-commercialized corporations. Such a pay-to-play system is always vulnerable to capture by oligarchs who turn media outlets into their personal playthings.

Capitalist logics wire our news media to behave in antisocial ways, from exploiting news workers to privileging some audiences (whiter, wealthier) over others. Various forms of redlining and market censorship — patterns of exclusion and bias — are baked into the system. By now, it should be commonsensical that the interests of profit-driven media firms and democratic societies will never fully align. Nor can the market entirely support public goods. Yet, we too often act as if it will.

Despite glaringly obvious market failures, can we even imagine what a post-commercial media system might look like? This prospect is especially daunting in the US where Americans have been socialized for many decades to believe there’s no alternative to the neoliberal paradigm. We’re entrenched within the trap of capitalist realism: The market seems as natural as gravity, and thinking beyond its confines is nearly impossible.

But glimmers of alternative models glint at us from the wreckage of our media landscape. The nonprofit sector continues to grow, labor activism in media industries continues to swell, and mergers between public broadcasting and print outlets are forming the basis of a new quasi-public media sector. An increasing number of state-level initiatives to subsidize local media production also give hope.

But bolder actions are necessary. We can try cobbling together a flotilla of public spaces and infrastructures — think libraries, post offices, public access cable outlets, and public broadcasting stations — or we can build something entirely new. My own preference is to build new anchor institutions — what I call public media centers — in every community. Inspired by the early 2000s Indymedia movement, these publicly financed news cooperatives could not only guarantee a baseline level of news media for all members of society but also empower local communities to govern their own newsrooms and tell their own stories.

Regardless of means, the ultimate objective is crystal clear: We must protect public goods like journalism from commercial depredations to preserve the material conditions necessary for democracy. Of course, a post-capitalist media system won’t manifest overnight, and some for-profit news media will persist and perhaps even flourish. But the public and nonprofit media sectors must ultimately provide for the balance of our information and communication needs.

At various points in history, both in the United States and around the world, there has been greater awareness of capitalism’s systemic limitations in supporting the news media that democracy requires. After decades of market fundamentalism, this critical consciousness has been largely beaten out of the discourse. Recovering this critique and sundering journalism from capitalism is the first step toward building a post-commercial system that privileges democracy over profit.

Victor Pickard is the C. Edwin Baker Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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