Americans could barely buy a coffee with what they spend per year on public media

Weak signal
Weak signal
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Local newspapers are dying. Half the jobs in newspaper publishing disappeared between 2001 and 2016, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Online publishing is a bright spot, but much of it national. Among print outlets in small towns and cities, more than 1,800 closed or merged between 2004 and 2015.

In other countries, public broadcasting fills the void for public interest, civic journalism when the market cannot. From Europe to Australia, the average country spent $86 per capita on public broadcasting in 2014. In the US, it was just $3. In many states, it’s even lower.

But one state is pioneering an effort that would spend $5 million to revive local media. The Nieman Lab reported this summer that New Jersey passed the bipartisan Civic Info bill to start a nonprofit news incubator called the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. The dollars for New Jersey’s anemic local news scene could mark a revival of civic-minded journalism backed by public dollars.

Not quite. It’s still a barely perceptible breeze. So far, no states have followed New Jersey’s lead.

Conservatives have long objected to government funding for media. In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney responded (paywall) to debate moderator Jim Lehrer, the longtime public-television anchor on PBS, saying, “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to the stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

In 2017, US president Donald Trump attempted to zero out the line item for public broadcasting, threatening to leave the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with little to distribute to hundreds of local television and radio stations, and prompting CEO Patricia Harrison to warn it would mean “the collapse of the public media system.” But Congress, which controls the budget, kept the funding level at about $445 million. Trump’s 2019 budget proposal again proposed to eliminate nearly all of the funding for public broadcasting.