Should Real News Be a Utility, Like Water and Electricity?

(Also published at Huffington Post.) Like people in towns across America, I’m watching my local newspapers die.

Every few months, it seems, they lay off more staff, while announcing a new digital initiative that’s somehow supposed to make up for the fact that they just can’t afford to report the news any more.

No one wants to pay for it.

After all, look at all the “content” we can get for free, much of which looks like news.

The trouble is, though, so much of it isn’t. Real news can’t be created by digital magic. It requires the time-consuming work of humans — trained ones — digging into what’s going on, weighing competing versions of the truth, and giving the rest of us their best version.

It’s never perfect, and sometimes it’s very far short of that. But it’s so much better than any alternative. Democracy literally depends on it, as Thomas Jefferson said:

The way to prevent [errors] of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter…

Do not be too severe upon the people’s errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I and Congress and assemblies, judges, and governors, shall all become wolves.

“What are you going to do about it?” Thomas Nast cartoon showing Tammany Hall as a tiger consuming democracy.

“What are you going to do about it?” Thomas Nast cartoon showing Tammany Hall as a tiger consuming democracy.

But in our modern, digital world, news doesn’t pay, and so, especially at the local level, it’s going away.

That could be seen as good news for people like me, whose job it is to try to get stories into the media. With fewer reporters in the way, that’s getting easier all the time. More and more papers will run a well-written press release unedited.

But I hate it. I don’t want an easier job, if it comes at the expense of a functioning democracy.

To save democracy, we must save news. We can start with local news, which is what matters most to most people (nationally, we have some government funding of public broadcasting, but it’s unlikely we’ll see that expand any time soon).

I have an idea: why not make local news a utility? Charge a small user fee to all the people in a city or county who benefit from more honest institutions – and that’s everybody, of course. The money collected would fund an independent news utility, charged with doing what healthy newspapers always did: holding the powerful accountable.

If this only funded one such organization per locality, that wouldn’t be as good as what we used to have: cities often had several daily papers. But it would be a lot better than what we’re heading towards in city after city — no newspaper worthy of the name.

What about TV news? That business is struggling too, but it’s still better off than newspapers are. And as TV has traditionally done with newspapers, it could leverage the original reporting done by the news utility.

We can’t do without clean water or reliable electricity. Maybe it’s finally time to recognize that the same is true of accurate information.

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