In My Words: The case for government investment in journalism

A newspaper guest column by Associate Professor Michelle Ferrier argues that government can play a role in developing the next generation of storytellers.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Roanoke (Va.) Times via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.


Associate Professor Michelle Ferrier
In My Words: The case for government investment in journalism
By Michelle Ferrier –

The North Carolina General Assembly this moment is considering the rollback of a long-time requirement for some local governments that legal notices be printed in the local newspaper, a revenue stream for publishers totaling millions of dollars a year. States across the country, including neighboring Virginia, have been gnawing on the issue as well.
Should HB 504 become law, nine North Carolina counties, and municipalities within those counties, would no longer be dependent on their local newspapers as a vehicle for notification of bids for state contracts, announcements of property foreclosures, or disclosure of other government or legal business. The counties represented in this bill could instead post notices on their own electronic servers.
What might be lost? The local newspaper itself, most likely, as publications face technological disruptions and the “great collapse” of revenue from classified, display and subscriptions income streams. It’s no secret that the print journalism industry is already struggling to reinvent itself in our brave new digital world.
Since 2007, more than 120 newspapers nationally have succumbed to these struggles. A troubling number of communities across the United States no longer have access to fresh, local news and information. We are more knowledgeable about events around the world than happenings in our own backyard.
Governments should certainly not feel compelled to make a foray into the Fourth Estate as a direct replacement for folded newspapers. Lawmakers should, however, study how they might use their savings to instead trumpet the values that community newspaper represent. We need to preserve the public service that captures community stories and that gives us a sense of ourselves and our place in the world.
Consider using the funds saved from no longer printing legal notices to train a nationwide media corps, “community storytellers,” if you will, much like the writers of the Works Project Administration. Use our underemployed talent, whether fresh out of journalism schools or displaced from the profession or newer community voices, to bolster civic news and information functions.
Even more importantly, boost open government initiatives to create greater transparency, especially in communities that have lost their newspaper watchdog functions. Despite what some individual politicians may think, it truly is in the government’s best interest to be as forthcoming as possible with public information.
There are some who will wring their hands and say that government shouldn’t be funding our news and information. They’ll point to the arguments over our public broadcasting such as NPR and PBS. They’ll say that in this political and economic climate, it would be impossible to redirect these government monies to funding community news and information for a more informed citizenry. We need less government control, not more.
Let someone else pick up the slack, they’ll say, we don’t need newspapers now. We have the Internet.
They will ignore that government is already in our media. They will ignore history that shows that this innovation called a free press was started with government licensing, preferential postal rates, even government-purchased printing presses in places. They will ignore that we would not have the democracy we enjoy if we did not have a free press.
They will believe that newspapers achieved their heights on their own and can figure their way out of their fast race to the bottom on their own, thank you very much. But we’re talking about something more vital to our civic discourse than newspapers. We’re talking journalism, that vital community information function. One that serves our communities and its residents first, by whatever means necessary.
Community news and information for the people, by the people, of the people. And, maybe, funded by the people. Because that’s what the government should be, the collective voice and actions of the people.
For if we do not care now, we will grasp too late the enormity of what we have lost from journalism: The marketplace of ideas, the gathering of stories of about our reality and perhaps the democracy we hold dear.

Michelle Ferrier is an associate professor at Elon University and vice president of Journalism That Matters, a collaboration of journalists, technologists, librarians, educators and others helping to shape the new news ecology through journalism innovation, technology and interdisciplinary conversation.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend ( in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions through the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

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