By Victor Pickard / The Washington Post
As the economic fallout from the coronavirus further decimates financially struggling small-town and city newspapers — still Americans’ main source for original local journalism — a desperate search is underway for alternative models.
Analysts are looking around the world and back through history for examples of news media that don’t depend on advertising revenue; a collapsing business model that is unlikely to ever return. Ideas range from starting donor-funded nonprofit organizations to repurposing public broadcasting systems. But one intriguing experiment from American history has been almost entirely forgotten: the municipal newspaper.
During the Progressive era, public outrage grew over commercial excesses such as yellow journalism and propaganda; the “clickbait” and “fake news” of the early 20th century. A nonprofit, municipal-owned newspaper seemed like an idea whose time had come. George H. Dunlop, a “good government” progressive and former Hollywood mayor, conducted a successful petition, and Los Angeles became a test case for this experiment.
In a December 1911 vote, a majority supported the proposal to establish a taxpayer-funded paper, and the Los Angeles Municipal News launched in April 1912. With a government-guaranteed annual subsidy of $36,000 (worth nearly $1 million today), the city helped finance the distribution of up to 60,000 copies. To ensure accountability, the mayor appointed a commission of three citizen volunteers to govern the paper. They served four-year terms but were subject to recall by voters at any time. Dunlop, the newspaper’s original architect, was chosen as one of the commissioners.
The newspaper sought to be nonpartisan and democratic by guaranteeing an equal amount of weekly column space to any political party that received more than 3 percent of the vote, including the Democratic, Republican, Socialist and Socialist Labor parties. Newspaper carriers delivered the weekly paper, which was usually eight to 12 pages, free of charge to homes. People could also subscribe via mail for one penny.
The inaugural editorial of this “people’s newspaper” declared itself “the first municipal newspaper in the world … owned by the people of the community in which it is printed.” It was described as “created by the people, for the people, and built for them under their control. It is in this sense unique.” The newspaper’s masthead read, simply and boldly: “A Newspaper Owned by the People.”
The newspaper’s editor and its 10 staffers covered local happenings such as government operations, the proceedings of various agencies and public school events. To maintain political neutrality, the paper provided equal space to arguments for or against specific city ordinances proposed to voters. Although the paper’s emphasis was on high-quality, fact-based information about civic issues and responsibilities, reporters also covered popular culture, including music, fashion and new products coming into the market.
The paper offered free classified and help-wanted ads, as well as other important information, but it banned ads camouflaged as news stories; what we would call “native advertising” today. However, it did accept commercial ads from local businesses. This revenue helped defray costs but didn’t generate enough money for the paper’s expansion as originally hoped.
Nonetheless, Dunlop and his fellow reformers believed that public newspapers offered the last best hope for democracy, reflecting the growing conviction among social critics that a commercial press could never rise above profit pressures and class allegiances to serve democratic imperatives.
Given the national scourge of sensationalistic and unreliable news, press reformers across the country watched the Los Angeles experiment closely. One article published in La Follette’s weekly magazine noted the public’s “growing realization” that “the commercialization of the great daily newspapers of the country presents one of the most serious problems connected with the movement toward democracy.” Therefore, it read, “the career of this newspaper owned by the taxpayers will be watched with interest everywhere.”
Despite such initial fanfare and high hopes from the local community and beyond, the experiment was ultimately short-lived. Feeling threatened by the rise of a popular public alternative, local commercial newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, banded together to oppose the initiative, charging that the paper presented unfair competition in the marketplace and was an illegitimate expenditure of public money. This opposition may have combined with some public complaints that the paper’s distribution, especially early on, was not always reliable.
When the question of public funding for the newspaper appeared on the ballot again in 1913 — written in a confusing, ambiguous way, according to some people — voters rejected it in a low-turnout election. Many supporters believed the paper fell victim to a misinformation campaign fueled by commercial publishers’ opposition. The editor blamed an “antagonism, carefully and consistently fostered by the private press and its representatives” that impeded progress and discouraged erstwhile supporters.
One post-mortem report described the paper as a “successful experiment” brought down by “active determined opposition” from the city’s local business community. The article concluded that more such newspapers were needed to fight political corruption with “civic service” and “impartial information” similar to that provided by schools and libraries.
Toward the end of its final run, the paper announced, at the top of its front page, “THE MUNICIPAL NEWSPAPER IDEA CANNOT BE KILLED.” The paper urged reformers in other cities to continue agitating for public newspapers dedicated to providing diverse views on government policies and local affairs. Dunlop hoped the idea — that citizens deserved a public-service newspaper that wasn’t simply the “private property of some millionaire” — would live on.
With the triumph of the commercial newspaper, this nonprofit experiment has receded into the past, forgotten by all save for a smattering of scholars over the years. Meanwhile, structural alternatives to profit-driven news outlets in the United States have remained relatively underfunded and pushed to the margins over the past century. Nonetheless, a publicly owned municipal newspaper that informs a community about local affairs remains a viable alternative to the dying commercial model.
Indeed, with local journalism’s importance to democracy more evident and more at risk than ever before, it may be time to reconsider this model. Local news outlets cover stories and offer community-level information — potentially lifesaving during a global pandemic — that national outlets will never provide. Study after study shows that losing local journalism doesn’t just come with political costs such as decreased voting and civic engagement, municipalities also pay significant economic costs when they lack a community news outlet that uncovers corruption and waste.
Instead of building something from scratch, municipalities could expand existing city information sites, build on public infrastructure or outright purchase their local paper. Given cities’ budget shortfalls, a federally funded network of municipal newspapers might be more feasible. With the imminent collapse of many local news outlets — what’s been called a “media extinction event” — today’s journalism crisis presents a rare opportunity to introduce a “public option” to towns and cities across the country. The municipal newspaper is an idea whose time has returned.
Victor Pickard is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change Center. He is the author of the recent book “Democracy Without Journalism?”