What counts as infrastructure? Critics of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan are already in a huff that the administration’s proposals go well beyond repairing roads and bridges. Some of the complaints from the right are bizarre even by conservative standards: It won’t be obvious to the American people why building electric car charging stations and installing broadband don’t count as infrastructure, and Republicans aren’t in a hurry to explain themselves. As for the other social spending provisions in this package or expected in the next one later this month—funding for childcare facilities, the care of the elderly and the disabled, and more—the administration’s arguments on their behalf have been sound. These investments are just as integral to maintaining American dynamism and productivity as any set of construction projects. A nation that underinvests in the care of its children and those who can no longer care for themselves is clearly in a state of disrepair.
Really, the administration’s push for a more capacious definition of infrastructure should encourage us to think even more creatively about what else should qualify for the next package as it takes shape. Can it seriously be argued, for instance, that access to the news isn’t an important feature of any well-functioning society? We all depend upon a steady stream of accurate information; obviously, we owe much of our awareness that America’s infrastructure is crumbling to the work of journalists who helped alert policymakers and the public to the problem in the first place.
Unfortunately, our journalistic institutions are also crumbling. Thanks to the disruptions wrought by the dawn of the internet age and sharp declines in traditional advertising revenue, the country has lost more than 2,000 newspapers since 2004, according to the Brookings Institution’s 2019 report “Local Journalism in Crisis.” More than five million Americans across more than 200 counties have no local newspaper serving them at all. Almost half of the communities in these news deserts are rural. Newsroom employment across all mediums fell by 25 percent between 2008 and 2018. At newspapers, employment dropped 47 percent.
The journalists we have left have helped shepherd us through the pandemic. Right now, many Americans are turning to state and local outlets to find out where and when they can get their vaccines, how to stay safe, when schools and businesses might reopen, and what their leaders are doing to pull communities through the remainder of the crisis—a crisis that, it should be said, hit the news media particularly hard early on as businesses dialed back their ad spending, leading to scaled-down or suspended publication at numerous outlets and the loss of 11,000 more newsroom jobs in the first half of last year.
Stimulus spending helped stop some of the bleeding, and some outlets will emerge from the pandemic with more readers, viewers, and subscribers. But the outlook for the industry remains poor, and its ongoing collapse has already had a profound impact on our politics. The number of full-time reporters at state capitals fell by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014, reducing, for millions of Americans, access to reporting on policies that directly affect them, written from a local perspective. That decline has contributed heavily to the nationalization and hollowing out of our political discourse. “It used to be that most people consumed their news via newspapers that reported on the news from, say, an Idaho-specific point of view,” progressive data analyst David Shor said in a recent interview with The New Republic. “‘Frank Church gets an appropriation to get a new highway near Boise’—that was the framing and context in which people read things back then. Now they don’t.”
Today, even an increasing proportion of the local news that remains available to Americans is slanted by political donors and activists who’ve made strategic investments in the media. The Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, which spent the Trump administration pushing White House and Republican talking points, is the second-largest television station operator in the country with nearly 200 stations across 89 media markets nationwide. Elsewhere, journalism is being shaped more subtly but no less consequentially by the hedge funds who’ve spent the decade hoovering up newspapers or the tech companies responsible for crippling the industry in the first place.
Early in the pandemic, Facebook and Google gave millions in emergency funds to newsrooms—calculating, no doubt, that buying some goodwill will be cheaper for them in the long run than the possibility that Americans might consider the taxes and revenue-sharing mandates already being contemplated or enacted in Europe and Australia. Most of the industry won’t be won over so easily. Earlier this year, HD Media, the owner of West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, which won the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the opioid epidemic before declaring bankruptcy the next year, filed a first-of-its-kind antitrust lawsuit against Facebook and Google, arguing that their control of digital advertising will make it hard for outlets to survive no matter how much money they deign to toss in newspapers’ direction.
But newspapers and other outlets do need more money, preferably from sources likely to keep the public interest first in mind. The United States spends notoriously little on public funding for the media. In 2014, we spent just $3 per capita on public broadcasting compared to nearly $90 on average across much of the developed world. Many ideas on how we might be brought to par with our peer countries have been offered over the years, some more ambitious than others. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Andrew Yang proposed a fellowship program pairing journalists with local newsrooms in every state, as well as the establishment of a federal “Local Journalism Fund” that would offer $1 billion in grants to help local outlets transition into new and sustainable business models or nonprofit status. This would be a good start.
But given the amount of money the administration is ready to push out the door on these infrastructure bills, it’s plain that we can afford to do much, much more. Dedicating $30 to $40 billion over the next 10 years, or just 1 percent of the estimated $3 to $4 trillion total cost of the bills, to a federal fund offering grants for state and local outlets and reporting projects in all mediums, digital and traditional, would amount to a historic and legacy-defining investment in America’s civic infrastructure. Many jobs would be saved or created. The state of our politics might materially improve. And communities across the country—again, particularly in rural news deserts—would benefit from additional reporting on the issues most important to them. The president and Democrats in Congress should give it some thought in the coming weeks. While politicians from both parties take a perennial interest in repairing potholes, it may be quite some time before we see another opportunity this large to bolster the health of our press.