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Are Newspapers Too Big to Fail Now?

Democrats’ gigantic Build Back Better bill contains a government bailout for local journalism. Why does no one see a problem with that?

Are Newspapers Too Big to Fail Now?

Democrats’ gigantic Build Back Better bill contains a government bailout for local journalism. Why does no one see a problem with that?

If you’ve toiled in the sweatshops of American journalism as long as I have, you’d expect to be doing a jig right about now. ‘Cause you’re about to get bailed out by Big Brother. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act has been folded into the Build Back Better reconciliation bill that Congress may pass any day now—on a straight party line vote among Democrats in the Senate.

The Act uses tax credits to rescue local media, particularly the dying newspaper industry. At one point, it included tax breaks for consumers who buy local newspapers or donate to nonprofit news organizations, and for small businesses that advertise on local media. Now it consists of a refundable payroll tax credit of up to $25,000 per journalist to help local news entities hire and retain reporters and editors.

Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute, the nonprofit that owns the Inquirer, has been one of the chief cheerleaders for the Act. He told the Washington Post that it could be “potentially the most important legislation for local news in the last hundred years” and that a qualifying news organization with 50 journalists could garner around $1 million in payroll tax credits to help retain reporting staff.

Let’s be clear what this is: a taxpayer bailout for an industry that has been losing customers in droves for decades—and yet continues to put out the same drab products, audience feedback be damned. Some 3,000 news organizations are lobbying elected officials for this relief. Mind you, journalists won’t let an elected official buy them a soft pretzel for fear of the “appearance of a conflict of interest.” Now they’re lobbying for a bill that will directly benefit them that will be passed by all Democratic votes. (The Act itself had bipartisan support; but, once folded into the reconciliation bill, it will be adopted into law after what is expected to be a partisan vote.)

Are you okay with this?

There’s an element of shameless hypocrisy in this saga, enough to conjure up the old, likely apocryphal tale of Winston Churchill’s late night, drunken conversation with a fetching socialite:

Churchill: Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?

Socialite: My goodness, Mr. Churchill… Well, I suppose… we would have to discuss terms, of course…

Churchill: Madam, would you sleep with me for five pounds?

Socialite: Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!

Churchill: Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we’re just negotiating over price.

So, yes, there’s the desperate hypocrisy—which may explain why so few newspapers have critically covered this topic. But there’s also a less highfalutin’, more strategic point to be made here: At a time when trust in journalism is at an all-time low, how does it help to give fodder to those who say that the mainstream press is nothing more than an arm of liberal America by aligning news organizations with a bill passed along partisan lines? Besides, the problem with newspapers in particular has been that they’ve been hemorrhaging readers. So we’re supposed to view a marriage of two of the most untrustworthy and unpopular institutions in America—government and the press—as some type of brilliant comeback plan? Who drew up that play?

“The LJS Act puts the onus on the IRS to define what counts as a news organization,” says Dr. Nikki Usher, associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, a one-time Inquirer cub reporter, and author of the compelling News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism. “Anyone who has lived through the four years of the Trump Administration has to lack confidence that there will always be a consistent, sustainable commitment from the federal government to support a democratic press.”

RELATED: NewsGuard combats fake news

We’re opening a can o’ worms here, folks. I get why media industry eyes have widened at the prospect of a windfall from federal coffers. And let me keep it real with you: I’ll happily play the socialite in the Churchill byplay and take any dollars we’re eligible for here at The Citizen. But my moral weakness doesn’t make the LSJ Act good policy. The country is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War, and the press salivation over the LJS Act promises to be a furtherance of the divides that ail us.

Yet the conventional wisdom in favor of a de facto governmental takeover of the news continues. “The bill’s provisions, should they become reality, are not going to solve the local news problem,” writes one of the cheerleaders, Margaret Sullivan, in the Washington Post. “It stems, after all, from irrevocable changes in the way news organizations (especially newspapers) have been funded for many decades: largely through local advertising.”

Really? Is that the problem we’re solving for? A market failure? Or has the market spoken and found the products we’ve been selling them vastly wanting? After all, storytelling is ascendant all around us. Netflix, Amazon, podcasts, and even old-school books are all flourishing, or at least doing fine. Maybe, before journalists sign up to go on the government dole, we should explore how we got here, and what we could do to fix our own problems ourselves?

Why newspapers are facing extinction

In the fall of 2007, I was asked to interview Norman Mailer at a Free Library book event. At the cocktail reception beforehand, I found myself huddled in conversation with the legendary author. He was, by then, a kindly old man, unsteady on his feet. I peppered Mailer with questions: We talked about the march on the Pentagon in 1967 that was the setting of his greatest book, Armies of The Night, a stinging critique of establishment journalism. He was charming and self-deprecating. There was little of that rebellious, pugnacious spirit that had come to be his calling card back in the day.

Until, that is, we segued to the subject of newspapers, which even then were increasingly imperiled. In the Sixties, Mailer had founded the Village Voice because something new was desperately needed. He wanted to know: Where was today’s journalistic disruption?

“They get what they deserve,” he spat out. “When was the last time you read something in a newspaper—even in the vaunted New York Times—that made you think? America is allergic to ideas, and that’s not unrelated to the principal failing of journalism: It’s as if they don’t see it as their mission to publish anything interesting or stimulating or challenging. So I say, let them go. Good riddance.”

Mailer died soon after, yet when I went on a few years later to edit The Philadelphia Daily News, I thought of his perspective often. I’d come aboard right when the whole project was imploding. The newspaper industry had grown from a $20 billion to a $60 billion business between 1960 and 2000, and it took all of the next 10 years to revert back to a $20 billion industry.

RELATED: Public service journalism at its best

When newspapers enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the 20th Century, times were good. But flush publishers and journalists were stuck in place due to hubris. When things got bad, they were paralyzed due to fear and a type of collective anger. When the economy tanked in 2008, advertisers started to realize what would happen if they didn’t advertise (nothing!), and that placing ads on websites was not akin to ads in a paper due to the new medium’s lack of contiguousness between ad and editorial content. Critically, advertisers also saw that readers were leaving newspapers in droves: The market was speaking, and it was telling editors and reporters that it didn’t like what they were producing.

At a time when trust in journalism is at an all-time low, how does it help to give fodder to those who say that the mainstream press is nothing more than an arm of liberal America by aligning news organizations with a bill passed along partisan lines?

From 2000 to 2018, after all, weekday newspaper circulation fell from 55.8 million households to about 29 million; between 2008 and 2019, newsroom employment fell by 51 percent; since 2004, more than 1,800 local newspapers have folded throughout the country.

The conventional wisdom inside media as to why newspapers face extinction are by now all too familiar: The Internet lured readers away, Craigslist stole Classifieds, Facebook and Google encroached on ad dollars, and an industry-wide rush to offer content for free on the web in the ’90s was the ultimate in self-defeat. All true, but notice what’s missing from this autopsy? Any introspective reckoning. Noticeably absent is Mailer’s thesis: That your product ain’t selling ‘cause maybe it ain’t good enough.

Rather than seeking a bail-out that would effectively be a doubling-down on the same-old, same-old, how about rethinking the very idea of what a newspaper is and ought to be? After all, the last time the philosophical precepts of journalism underwent significant revision was in the 1800s, when the notion of objectivity took hold, a change that was driven by advertiser wishes rather than any desire to serve the citizen any better.

Where do we go from here?

Herewith, some ideas for how to rescue local journalism that doesn’t involve resigning oneself to accepting corporate welfare:

Admit that objectivity is a myth

Daily journalism is too often the stenography of who said what yesterday, in the most stultifying of tones. Not exactly a prescription for producing gripping must-reads. How about embracing all the amino acids of great storytelling in order to recapture citizen attention: Voice, narrative drive, immersive reporting, character development, the freedom to arbitrate between competing sets of facts, not giving the story away in the first paragraph.

Readers don’t read to find out what happened; they read to find out what happens next. Nor do they object to bias; they object to the bullshit denial of it. So have a point of view; you can be transparently subjective and scrupulously fair at the same time, as evidenced historically by McCall’s magazine and its fueling of the progressive movement during Teddy Roosevelt’s time, The New Republic in its heyday, or these last two decades. Those who are considering “disrupting” journalism, be they MBAs or techies, tend to focus on questions of business model or discovering the next popular platform. What they don’t realize is that the answer is more liberal arts than computer science. Storytelling is as old as our history and it’s not going anywhere, provided it’s gripping enough to capture attention.

“When was the last time you read something in a newspaper that made you think?” Normal Mailer once asked me. “America is allergic to ideas, and that’s not unrelated to the principal failing of journalism: It’s as if they don’t see it as their mission to publish anything interesting or stimulating or challenging. So I say, let them go. Good riddance.”

There are many experts doing a whole lotta hand-wringing about the state of journalism—particularly newspapers—these days, but you have to look far outside the journalistic industrial complex for anyone who prescribes rethinking the very notion of storytelling. The smartest critique I’ve seen is from the brilliant philosopher Alain de Botton, in The News: A User’s Manual. At one point, he paints a scenario: Three women, one of them named Karenin, and three men sit before a couple of clerks who are officiously writing away, oblivious. When, finally, one looks up and asks “What do you want,” Karenin responds, “I want to see a lawyer on business.”

Let de Botton take it from here:

Imagine if at this point the story came to a sudden halt, and we were expected to express deep fascination and a desire to know more, even though it wasn’t clear what ‘more’ would appear…It would be implausible to suppose that we could nurture a sincere interest in Anna Karenina in this way but the habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative, then rapidly pulling them out again, while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context in which events have been unfolding, is precisely what occurs in the telling of many of the most important stories that run through our societies, whether an election, a budget negotiation, a foreign policy initiative, or a change to the state benefit system. No wonder we get bored.

Reading de Botton, I flashed back on an editorial meeting at The Daily News, circa 2012. “This guy, Scott Gordon,” I said, referring to the head of Mastery Charters, who had demonstrated a talent for turning around failing schools, “he seems like our Geoffrey Canada, who’s pioneered the Harlem Children’s Zone. Why don’t we embed with him and see if what he’s doing can be replicated anywhere in the district?”

After a pause, one smart young editor spoke up. “There’s not a lot of tension there,” he said.

One man taking on a sclerotic system lacks tension? Yes, if you define tension as conflict, in the most superficial sense of the term. What that editor meant was that a piece on Scott Gordon wouldn’t include parents screaming their heads off at educators at the then-SRC public meetings. We weren’t actually covering education; we were covering the spectacle around education.

We still get a whole lot wrong at The Citizen, and we’re still so embryonic that we can’t do half of what we wish we could, but that tagline at the top of your screen? What Happened. What It Means. What You Can Do About It? The What It Means part is what’s missing from the daily drumbeat, which may just account for why the average citizen feels so beaten into submission by all this damn…noise.

Rethink what business you’re really in

If the railroads of yesterday had realized they were in the transportation business and not the railroad business, our airlines today would be named the Atcheson, the Topeka, and the Santa Fe. And if our newspapers had realized they were in the community business and not just the information business, once glorious brand names like The Philadelphia Inquirer might not be lost in the death spiral narrative, constantly going through round after round of buy-outs and threats of lay-offs.

People have decided their votes don’t count—and, as an editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, I started to feel complicit. We practiced the stenography of who said what yesterday, in mind-numbing detail; we dug for scandal, never stopping to think that we might be fueling cynicism; and, worse, we gave you a steady diet of ephemera, designed to get you addicted to clicking that mouse, again and again. I challenge you to go online and easily find a compendium of the votes your elected representative has cast on your behalf. But, with one click, you can find thousands of words about Gritty, the Flyers’ mascot, many written as if he were actually a sentient being.

Has the parade of headlines chronicling Philly’s elected leader perp walks spurred the citizenry to action? Hardly. Our subpar voter turnout numbers are not just an indictment of our political leaders and the electorate. It’s also a commentary on the role journalism has played in numbing a citizenry into apathy.

The era of online news has only made things worse. Here’s how it worked when I was at the Daily News: About every week, I’d put an unflattering photo of then-Eagles Coach Andy Reid on the cover, along with some snarky headline, like a double-entendre about his weight. Once we settled on the image and cover line, we’d email it over to WIP’s Angelo Cataldi, so he could talk about it at 7 am the next morning on his highly rated “morning zoo”-like sports talk radio show. By the time I got to the newsroom, I’d have a report on my desk on how many clicks our “journalism” had gotten.

This is not to rat out my brethren in the newsroom, all good, smart folks. It is to say that, in the for-profit online news game, you are incentivized to provide precisely the kind of public narrative our city doesn’t need. One that, when not focused on utter trivia, sells the scandal du jour, when what we need is a focus on ideas that can move us forward and a little help in how we can be better local patriots.

Admit that, woke speechifying aside, you’re not really diverse. 

Don’t get me wrong: Newsrooms desperately need to be more diverse, but we also need to expand the definition of diversity beyond race. The same righteous focus we place on racial and gender diversity needs to be aimed at diversity of thought. The barons of the journalistic industrial complex need to come clean about just how ideologically liberal they are.

A recent survey finds that only 7 percent of full-time journalists are Republicans. A poll during the 1992 presidential election of newspaper newsrooms found that something like 85 percent of journalists voted for Bill Clinton. One longtime journalist tells of a moment when, in an editorial meeting, he happened to mention that he’s a political conservative. “I had people coming up to me after, saying, ‘Really? Geez, I’d love to talk to you about that some time,’” he said. “They were looking at me like I was some exotic animal in the zoo.”

When the Inquirer jettisoned its editor last year after its “Building Matters, Too” headline fallout, what was once denied was suddenly front and center, as when Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong wrote: “I was initially attracted to this industry because I thought journalists were more progressive than people in other industries.”

That followed the blow-up at The New York Times, when an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, calling for the use of troops in American cities in response to protests and looting infuriated the newsroom and led to the ouster of a white male editor.

RELATED: Newsrooms must balance racial equity and public debate

“The economic model for journalism is fucked, but if the intellectual model is also willingly shot to hell, then the profession doesn’t have much of a future,” Zack Stalberg, the longtime, legendary editor of The Daily News, told me at the time from his home in Santa Fe, where he was riding horses, cutting cattle, chasing steer, drinking, and smoking cigars. “That Inquirer headline was stupid and dull, sure, but now you’ve got people thinking something and then thinking they’re not free to say it. If the news becomes so fucking safe that it’s just smart people having dumb, censored conversations, all you’ve done is what Trump wishes he could do: Silence divergent views. That creates a counter-reaction, which I feel out here, in the real world. People are like, ‘Wait a minute, reporters didn’t agree with Tom Cotton and got an editor fired for publishing a Senator’s op-ed? Shouldn’t The New York Times be better than this?’”

This week, if you got a chance to watch any of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial coverage, you saw a fact pattern emerge that was wholly at odds with the mainstream media reporting of the story. Turns out, Rittenhouse had nothing in his background to suggest that he was a white supremacist, didn’t own his gun illegally, and didn’t travel across state lines with it. In bombshell testimony, the surviving victim of his shooting said under oath that Rittenhouse only shot him after he’d pointed his gun at Rittenhouse.

Why was the journalism so bad on the Rittenhouse story? Might it have something to do with liberal reporters consciously or subconsciously cherry-picking facts to tell a pre-determined story? Was it just sloppy reporting, or ideological? I’m not sure, but you can certainly see how someone of a conservative political bent might conclude that it was the latter.

In the for-profit online news game, you are incentivized to provide precisely the kind of public narrative our city doesn’t need. One that, when not focused on utter trivia, sells the scandal du jour, when what we need is a focus on ideas that can move us forward and a little help in how we can be better local patriots.

Usher, the University of Illinois professor and author, says those are the wrong questions to be asking, because the answers are already in. “The latest Gallup survey shows that only 11 percent of Republicans trust the mainstream press to deliver the news accurately and fairly,” she says. “They’re gone, and they’re not coming back. Why pander? Why not use the power of the press to make the case for the disenfranchised in society?”

In other words, give up the charade and don team colors. But isn’t there a difference between junking objectivity and choosing partisan sides? Why can’t media itself be a place where divergent points of view meet—a virtual town square? That would require infusing the press with a wider range of perspectives than those currently approved by media overlords.

But isn’t that what civil society needs? More debate, not less? And isn’t that “hashing out” a uniquely American trait as Alexis D’Tocqueville observed? Journalism today should be in the business of widening the Overton Window, and not be complicit in its narrowing.

Counter the Watergate over-correction

“Every morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘What lies are the bastards going to tell today?’” the legendary reporter and author Bob Woodward once said. To a whole lot of journalists—me included—Woodward is a hero. Watch Robert Redford’s portrayal of him in All The President’s Men for a stirring portrait of moral rectitude.

After the reporting of Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, toppled a presidency, generations of journalists came of age who saw themselves as crusading truth-tellers. Soon, journalism was all about unmasking liars and crooks and cheats in our public life. And that is needed, yes. Journalistic digging is an important check on official power.

But if all you’re doing is hunting for scandal, after a while what you’re really doing is unwittingly conspiring with the political class to elicit in the average reader a paralyzing sense of cynicism. In a 1903 magazine article, journalist Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented.” Back then, as now, Philly was a one-party machine town. In the piece, a local ward leader explains to Steffens why our city so rapidly followed each stunning act of public malfeasance with yet more public malfeasance: “We reasoned that if we [did exactly as we wanted] fast enough, one-two-three – one after the other – the papers couldn’t handle them all, and the public would be stunned – and give up… We know that public despair is possible and that that is good politics.”

Has the parade of headlines chronicling Philly’s elected leader perp walks—including the most recent conviction of labor leader John Dougherty and City Councilman Bobby Henon—spurred the citizenry to action? Hardly. Our subpar voter turnout numbers are not just an indictment of our political leaders and the electorate. It’s also a commentary on the role journalism has played in numbing a citizenry into apathy. The opinion polls that show journalists are held in lower regard than Congress and used car salesmen have led me to a question one wishes those who are pursuing a federal bailout for news outlets would consider: What would it take for the press to still be an all-important watchdog and a force for civic good?

That’s why, here at The Citizen, we were an early adopter of the burgeoning solutions journalism movement. We want to explore vexing issues, sure, but also give equal weight to the ideas addressing them, and the people driving progress. Is there a business model for that? Beats the hell out of me, though we’re working on it. But I think that’s the wrong question. The right one is: Is there a need for that?

If you believe that cities don’t just happen, that they’re the product of colliding ideas and interests, then the chronicling of a city’s ever fragile narrative is a public good, just like clean air and clean water. Our job is to make that story interesting to as wide a swath of citizens as possible—without devolving into common denominator pablum. If what we produce is seen as essential to the life of the average citizen, the business model will come. In the meantime, we’ll just continue telling stories without fear or favor, and holding elected officials accountable, while bleeding scrapple all the while…and we’ll let others beg for governmental largesse.


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Header Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

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