With John Oliver’s impassioned defence of local newspapers sweeping across the internet, much to the consternation of certain newspaper owners who were the focus of his ridicule, it’s a good idea to add to Oliver’s warning, and to offer a path.
Last year saw the closure of old stalwart Swedish local newspapers like Eskilstuna’s Folkbladet. Dagbladet in Sundsvall shut down just one week after the decision to close was made. The Swedes have coined the term “Tidningsdöden”, or “the newspaper death”, to illustrate how dire things are.
Since the year 2000, the local newspapers that still limp on from this process have consolidated their operations by closing offices, merging offices, and abandoning smaller communities altogether to focus on larger ones. According to one study from Södertörn’s College, one-third of local offices have been closed since 2000. Since 1992, a fifth of all reporting positions have disappeared in the country.
In Sweden, the state decides what Municipalities can and must do, but the municipalities decide for themselves how to do it. For instance, the state has decided that municipalities must run schools for the children of that municipality, but it is up to the municipality to organise and structure their schools. Since municipalities must provide health care, social services, elderly care, and so one, this leaves Town Halls of the country’s 290 municipalities with a lot of power, and many decisions to make.
For a country where so many of the political decisions that affect people’s lives are made in these Town Halls, rather than in the faraway Stockholm parliament, local news is vital for democratic auditing of the local politicians.
In the 1950s, many newspapers faced the same problem that they do today. Newspapers were closed and merged everywhere, and it was thought that this was a threat to the democratic debate in the country, particularly since the Social Democratic party of Sweden was hegemonic.
Debate at the time concluded that the state wanted to prevent monopolies in local newspaper market, and it wanted to preserve a diverse local offering. Sweden introduced press support for second papers in many towns and communities. This press support was introduced from 1969 and onwards. To date, the public coffers have given 26 billion Kronas in press support to local newspapers.
In 2015, Presstödsnämnden gave newspapers 486,7 million Kronas. Around fifty million of that was given as distribution support, helping newspapers get into the large distributing networks owned and operated by the largest newspapers in the country. The remaining cash was given as direct cash injections to pay for staff, electricity, and equipment.
Why do it? Doesn’t this threaten democracy? One can’t have a press that is funded by the government, right? How will scrutiny happen then? Having the state pay for newspaper could seem like a recipe for servile reporting.
Presstödsnämnden, which gives out the support, is an arm’s-length body for this reason. Much like Ofcom and the BBC Trust in the UK, it is independent of the state. It is an arm’s-length body with a strict mandate to support weaker second papers in local communities. It can’t give support to dominant newspapers – those have to fend for themselves on ad revenues and subscriptions. Today, support is strictly to preserve diversity, not jobs and companies.
However, if newspapers are vital for democracy, as the Oliver video shows, then is it not important to protect the function that makes it important? Neo-liberals and Conservatives would have people believe that all state intervention is bad, but an informed electorate is required for the functioning of a country.
Both the UK and Sweden have publicly supported media in the form of broadcasters like Sveriges Television, Sveriges Radio, and BBC. The United States does as well, with NPR and PBS. Many value the contributions of these publicly funded and non-commercial entities. Arguably, populations in both the UK and Sweden trust their public broadcasters far more than they trust privately owned media.
Like Sweden did in the 1950s with a hegemonic Social Democratic party that could squeeze out all opposition, maybe there should be a new debate about the importance of diversity and scrutiny in local reporting.
And maybe there should be a debate, in the face of collapsing revenue models for this vital industry, that in order to protect this vital scrutiny, it should receive public cash in a way that minimises the risk for weak accountability. The alternative isn’t weak accountability, the alternative is no accountability at all as coverage disappears completely.