The federal government could help save local news — without endangering the free press — by taking some inspiration from Don Draper and getting creative with advertising spending.
The federal government already spends about $1 billion annually on advertising, for military recruitment (“Be All That You Can Be!”), Census implementation (“Shape Your Future”) and public health campaigns (“Tips from Former Smokers”). Many if not most of those ads go on national TV, cable networks or social media.
The government should require that a big chunk of that reach the public through local media, especially those providing news.
This has a few advantages. Although this approach would help local media, it advances other public policy goals, too. For instance, stopping the pandemic requires the dissemination of accurate trustworthy information. That includes a well-functioning local media but also can include information directly from public health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — in the form of a massive campaign of public health advertising.
Let’s say the federal government spent another $2 billion for public health messaging — $1 billion through the national government and $1 billion through local health departments. This could provide not only general information about social distancing but specific information about where in town to get tested, which businesses are open, how to go to the beach and when schools will open.
Ironically, the media hasn’t benefited much from public health ads so far because many have gone through the nonprofit Ad Council and have been aired by media organizations for free. At a time when local news systems are collapsing, the government shouldn’t expect local news organizations to run these ads without compensation.
Other public policy goals could be advanced, too. The pandemic has hobbled the U.S. Census Bureau’s ambitious plans for door-to-door canvassing. They should spend $500 million to plaster local media with ads urging Americans to sign up. Military recruitment efforts have stalled and will need a jump-start soon. And the Small Business Administration has struggled to get accurate information out to local firms about the Payroll Protection Plan. Other government ad campaigns tell students how to get loan forgiveness or the working poor how to qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. These government functions will need greater publicity, too.
If half of that advertising money went through local news organizations, it would pump about $1.5 billion into local newsrooms. For a sense of scale, that would be more than three times the entire budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This approach should be able to attract bipartisan support. Local media is more popular (and trusted) than national media. Since the government is already spending money on advertising, this won’t be (just) about spending new money. Since these campaigns have other public purposes, it’s not (mostly) about helping local media.
And there’s plenty of precedent. Local newspapers have benefited from local legal notices and other forms of advertising for years. More recently, the Canadian government recently decided to run $30 million in public health advertising around COVID-19 to help local media.
“It is essential that Canadians can obtain authoritative, well-sourced and factual information related to COVID-19,” said Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. “This is why the government of Canada is taking immediate action so Canadians can continue to access diverse and reliable sources of news.”
The positive impact on local news can be astounding. After the CUNY Newmark School of Journalism discovered that only 18% of New York City advertising was going to community news organizations, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an executive order requiring that 50% of the ad spending go to community media.
CUNY’s Center for Community Media launched an “Advertising Boost Initiative” and concluded that 82 community media outlets have received advertising, including 30 first-time beneficiaries. For instance, COLive.com, which covers Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, saw their ad revenue rise from $5,500 to $19,454.
“I look at this advertising money from the city agencies as God finding a way to help us stay afloat. This is a livelihood for us when we were thinking things would go really bad,” said Yossi Soffer, the advertising director.
There might be some practical inconveniences to this approach — it takes less time for an ad agency to process spending through Facebook, Disney or Comcast/NBCUniversal than through local organizations. And there may be instances when going through local media instead of social media will make targeting somewhat less precise.
But there is a big practical advantage to going through local media. Polls show that Americans trust local media far more than either national media or social media. So public health ads are more likely to have impact.
The details of how this gets implemented matter tremendously. If the spending goes to local media strictly on the basis of audience size, most would go to local TV stations and newspaper chains owned by hedge funds. That won’t help thousands of locally-owned and nonprofit news organizations that are struggling to report on the pandemic.
So the advertising policy needs a second piece: Half of the local share should go to locally-owned and nonprofit news media. This would help minority-owned newspapers, nonprofit websites, public radio stations, weekly papers, rural news organizations and other locally-owned or nonprofit newsrooms.
The government regularly inserts public policy goals into its procurement decisions. Agencies are required to buy American, advance minority-owned firms or help small businesses. If a government procurement policy boosts small businesses, why not “small media?”
Congress would need to put in extra safeguards to prevent political interference, which sometimes happens on the local level. Occasionally, politicians have tried to use that power to punish local newspapers. As a result, legal rules and precedents have developed to protect the press.
Congress should include language forbidding advertising decisions from being made on political grounds. A review board should review how the money is spent each year. Right now, each agency decides how to spend its own ad budget but fragmentary evidence is that increasing shares of the ad budgets are going to social media or national media.
Admittedly, as a way to help local media, this is a bit of a blunt instrument. Some worthy local news organizations might still get missed if ad buyers conclude that they don’t reach a targeted demographic. Some local media that don’t invest in solid reporting will also benefit. And this is by no means the only First Amendment-friendly way to help local media (here are proposals to “replant” newspapers back into communities or help local nonprofit news organizations)
But like the postal subsidy that helped create the newspaper industry in the 19th century, these kinds of broad formulaic policy approaches have been the most effective ways of helping news media without corrupting the free press.
Steven Waldman is president and co-founder of Report for America, and a leader of Rebuild Local Media, a campaign advocating for locally-owned and nonprofit community news.