According to Merriam-Webster, one definition of infrastructure is “the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization).”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has embraced that idea with a proposal for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan. Cantwell has said she is seeking $2.3 billion in grants and tax credits to sustain local newspapers and broadcasters as part of the president’s vast $2.3 trillion spending plan. That is 0.1 percent of Biden’s proposal to shore up America’s roads, bridges, social safety net and democratic pillars.
Republicans in Congress have opposed the plan, arguing that it embraces too broad a definition of infrastructure. Social programs, they say, have nothing to do with roads, bridges and ports.
But Americans would be wise to grasp the wider meaning of infrastructure, recognizing that decades of neglect have diminished our nation’s ability to deal with crises and have lessened our standing around the globe. For the United States to be a leader in a post-pandemic world, it must invest in itself and in the support structure that paves the way for American exceptionalism.
Local media is a pillar of that structure. A free and independent press that informs the public and holds government to account is a linchpin of American democracy. That democracy is increasingly under attack from a public susceptible to lies and misinformation.
While the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was the most visible and distressing result of such misinformation, the problem is pervasive and is exemplified by the struggles of local media.
Since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States. Others have been purchased by hedge funds that have slashed staff and news-gathering capabilities. The Columbian has been locally owned since its founding in 1890, and Vancouver’s Campbell family recently celebrated a century of ownership.
Now, the pressures of a changing media landscape have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. With businesses closing, temporarily or permanently, a decline in advertising revenue has led to the closure of 60 papers since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Like other businesses, newspapers — including The Columbian — benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program. But few industries are essential to the very function of democracy. As the Columbia Journalism Review reported last year: “Researchers found a strong association between newspaper circulation and corruption: the lower the circulation of newspapers in a country, the higher that country’s appearance on the corruption index.”
Speaking to a conference organized by the America’s Newspapers trade group, Cantwell said, “All of these things are issues we can’t shy away from addressing, we have to build this critical infrastructure; we have to build this critical infrastructure now.”
Increasingly, lawmakers are working to preserve an independent press. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, last year helped introduce the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits to newspaper subscribers, local media companies and small businesses purchasing advertising. It received bipartisan support — Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, was among 78 co-sponsors — and should be reintroduced this year.
And attention is turning toward telecommunications laws that allow digital platforms to use articles without benefits to the news organizations that produced them.
But, as Sen. Cantwell understands, more immediate assistance is necessary to boost local media — an essential piece of America’s infrastructure.