Why a Truly Free Press is Crucial to Our Nation
Independent news has been part of the fabric of the United States since before its inception. The men who created the modern constitutional democracy had lived under a monarchy that imposed strict licensing and libel laws that severely limited citizens' ability to criticize the Crown. During the lead-up to the American Revolution, they effectively created a free press by flouting these laws. After they won the war, the Founding Fathers added press protections to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.
But unsurprisingly, for a democracy with legalized slavery, the free press wasn't exactly free right out of the gate. Those libel laws stuck around under names like the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act, the latter enacted during World War I, promising imprisonment for those who "utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States."
It wasn't until 1964 that the Supreme Court ruled that these laws violated the First Amendment in The New York Times v. Sullivan. Though still imperfect, this ruling gave the United States some of the best press protections in the world.
The ruling set the stage for the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, their right to do so upheld by the Supreme Court's decision in The New York Times v. The United States. But that was just a precursor to the Post's Woodward and Bernstein taking down a president with their reporting on the Watergate scandal. In the mid-'70s, the press flexed its independence, and there was little the U.S. government could do to hold them back.
Infotainment and the Other Threat to Press Freedoms
In the early '60s, William Paley, CEO of CBS News, threw a year-end dinner for his news division, during which he outlined his plan for the year ahead. When questioned about the costs of his ambitious plan, he replied: "Don't worry about that. I've got Jack Benny to make money for me."
This was the norm in broadcast news at the time: news divisions were public services and not expected to make money. In part, this was due to Congressional guardrails like the Fairness Doctrine. But there was another more high-minded motivator: the idea that news reporting was a fundamental part of democracy that brought prestige to the networks. Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite were the voices of the nation, trusted by millions of Americans.
Little did Paley know that his news division would soon sow the seeds of broadcast journalism's demise.
Launched in 1968, "60 Minutes" has become the most respected news program in the medium's history, producing landmark reporting on the Vietnam War, Watergate, and corporate malfeasance. It's undoubtedly an all-time great, but it was the start of something so sinister that I can barely bring myself to type it out: news magazines. As its creator Don Hewitt put it:
"Our purpose is to make information more palatable and to make reality competitive with make-believe. There are shows on T.V. about doctors, cowboys, cops. This is a show about four journalists. But instead of four actors playing these four guys, they are themselves."
While he acknowledged a line between reality and make-believe that could not be crossed, the genie was out of the bottle. "60 Minutes" showed that news could be entertaining and profitable.
Exit Cronkite, enter "To Catch a Predator."
"Greed is Good"
If one phrase defined the 1980s, it was Gordon Gecko's declaration in Oliver Stone's 1987 film "Wall Street." But more telling was the setup to the malicious punchline, the reasoning behind the twisted praise of a commonly acknowledged character deficiency:
"Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can't figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I'll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents."
A year before the release of "Wall Street," Loews purchased CBS Inc. New CEO Laurence Tisch had made his fortune by practicing what Gecko was soon to preach. He and his brothers succeeded by limiting the potential for losses and eschewing significant investments with uncertain payoffs in favor of tight budgets that garnered immediate profits.
Sure enough, 200 employees were fired from CBS News in 1987 to save the network $30 million. This followed layoffs of 74 and 70 in '85 and '86, respectively.
As Michael Douglas was declaring, "I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!" in theaters across the country, Howard Stringer, CEO of CBS News, was defending CBS's layoffs by averring, "We believe that ultimately what we have done will save CBS News, not destroy it."
By the time Tisch sold CBS to David Letterman's soon-to-be-nemesis Westinghouse in 1995, CBS News was a shell of its former self, last in the ratings and spending $100 million less annually than ABC News. Its demoralized staff struggled to compete against newsrooms two to three times its size.
Tisch and his family were $1 billion richer; however, CBS News, once the jewel in the crown of the Tiffany Network, had just become another division that had to justify its existence through its profitability.
The Fall of Original Reporting and the Rise of Media Bias
Newspapers, for the most part, have always been for-profit enterprises. Just as CBS had Jack Benny to subsidize its original reporting, newspapers had the classifieds. People paid them to let others know they were selling a credenza or looking for a date. That was until 1996, when Craig Newmark turned his emailed newsletter promoting Bay Area events into a website named Craigslist.
When people realized they could sell their old futons for free online, newspapers faced a budgetary crisis. Like the broadcast newsrooms of the 1980s, the 2000s brought waves of layoffs to the industry. But layoffs weren't the worst of it. More than 2,500 newspapers have closed since 2005. Many served rural and suburban communities, leaving 70 million Americans living in news deserts, locations without or with limited access to local news.
Many turned to the internet for their news, where the decrease in original reporting coincided with the rise of blogs that recycled content. These blogs often placed original reporting in the context of strong political opinions, twisting them into narratives that appealed to people's left or right political views. Sites like Daily Kos and the Blaze became the primary news source for many partisans who relied on echoes of original reporting to be informed.
Simultaneously, news channels like MSNBC and CNN began reporting news in a way that appealed to liberals, and stations like Fox News and Newsmax covered events with a decidedly conservative slant. News was no longer consumed to become informed about the world but to make the world conform to how you viewed it.
News stories now serve as weapons in the Cold Civil War we're currently in. Even when original reporting is honest and without bias, partisans attack and discredit it so that virtually every news story is viewed with suspicion. This did not entirely occur organically, as Leslie Stahl tells it:
"At one point, (Trump) started to attack the press. There were no cameras in there. I said, 'You know, this is getting tired. Why are you doing it over and over? It's boring and it's time to end that. You know, you've won ... why do you keep hammering at this?' And he said: 'You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.'"
It's no wonder trust in the media has plummeted.
A Return to the Fundamentals of Journalism
In baseball, when a batter goes through a slump, they watch video of their swing to identify flaws in their fundamentals. There's little doubt that the news media has been in a prolonged slump, and a return to the fundamentals is needed to break out of it. And there's nothing more fundamental to journalism than original reporting driven by no agenda aside from a commitment to discovering the truth.
As Bill Moyers put it in 2005, "A free press is one where it's ok to state the conclusion you're led to by the evidence."
What makes journalism so vital and critical to a free society is devotion to facts, a sober viewing of events reported with no motivation aside from faithfully chronicling them. That, in the end, is what makes the free press free.
A new push in independent news aims to liberate the press from corporate demands that taint its coverage.
What is Independent News?
Simply put, it's news media that is free from government or corporate influence. This includes newspapers, broadcast media, internet news sites, and investigative journalism initiatives, many of which rely on the nonprofit model to sustain themselves. Nonprofit news organizations perform journalism for journalism's sake. There's no motivation to turn a profit, freeing them to focus on quality original reporting.
Independent news is not necessarily unbiased news. Many independent news organizations choose the stories they cover through a political lens. However, most are committed to providing unbiased original reporting, stating the conclusion the evidence leads to, as Moyers put it, especially those focused on delivering local news to underserved areas.
As news consumers, we can influence the kind of journalism produced in our country. People say they want fair and unbiased news reporting that investigates those with political and economic power without government or corporate influence, but their actions say otherwise. One way to create unbiased, fact-based journalism is to create demand for it.
Independent News Sites
A list of national and local news organizations that invest in original reporting follows. Many are nonprofits that rely on support from readers and donations to operate.
Dedicated to funding and supporting local nonprofit news organizations across the country.
Funds and supports organizations that are building a better future for local news.
Dedicated to keeping local news in local hands through promoting new ownership structures and business models.
Nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that advocates for new public policies to revitalize local community journalism and strengthen democracy.
Promotes local journalism that is truthful, fearless, fair, and smart to strengthen our communities and our democracy.
Independent, nonprofit newsroom that holds power to account by shining a light on abuses and betrayals of public trust.
A network of journalists driven by the belief that access to independently sourced facts is not only essential for democracy but is also a fundamental human right.
Grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting by helping journalists share story ideas, newsgathering techniques, and news sources.
Proudly independent purveyor of fearless journalism that believes in the Free Press's vital role in a democracy and society to protect truth, transparency, and accountability.
The nation's first nonprofit newsroom empowers the public through investigative journalism and groundbreaking storytelling to spark action, improve lives, and protect our democracy.
Nonprofit news organization dedicated to delivering reliable, nonpartisan, and essential coverage of Chicago's diverse neighborhoods.
Fearless, innovative, and nationally respected media voice in Chicago for more than 50 years.
Founded in 1948 and winner of eight Pulitzer's, The Sun-Times joined the Chicago Public Media family of companies in 2022 and now operates as a nonprofit organization.
A journalism lab that equips people with skills and resources engages in critical public conversations and produces information that directly addresses people's needs.
Nonprofit journalism organization that examines issues of equity and justice in the court system.
Original works in journalism and documentary, alongside creative writing and video, capture the multifaceted essence of the Black experience in pursuit of truth and liberation.
Independent voice for underserved communities dedicated to building bridges across Colorado Springs neighborhoods.
Local media resource hub and ideas lab that serves all Coloradans by strengthening high-quality local journalism, supporting civic engagement, and ensuring public accountability.
Journalist-owned, award-winning news outlet based in Denver that strives to cover all of Colorado so that the state — and its communities — can better understand itself.
Independent, reader-supported nonprofit media organization that covers the important issues and stories that define the Western United States.
Nonpartisan and nonprofit news organization bringing Californians stories that probe, explain and explore solutions to quality of life issues while holding our leaders accountable.
Grassroots community of passionate journalists, organizers, and advocates working together to bring a new perspective to Angelenos.
Nonprofit organization dedicated to explaining L.A. by listening to what readers are curious about, what keeps them up at night, and who they want to be held accountable.
Founded in 1912, Wave is the largest group of community newspapers in Los Angeles, delivering quality news to 1.2 million people.
Independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces thoughtful, in-depth journalism about civic and cultural affairs impacting Minnesota.
Independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to keeping Minnesotans informed and unearthing stories other outlets can't or won't tell.
Working together to signal boost, cross-promote, and build a more vibrant community of media outlets in service of the citizens of Minnesota.
A decentralized, educational nonprofit media organization that reports underrepresented stories and sheds light on alternative perspectives and systems.
An independent nonprofit newsroom that covers New York's uncovered neighborhoods, holds the powerful to account, and makes sense of the greatest city in the world.
A website about New York City news, arts, events, and food, funded by New York Public Radio.
Strives to accurately inform residents of Dobbs Ferry, Ardsley on Hudson, Irvington, Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow. In 2022, it became a nonprofit organization.
Free, progressive monthly newspaper that covers social justice movements and the issues they are concerned about in New York and beyond.
Delivers news to thousands of readers at NYU's Manhattan and Brooklyn campuses, Greenwich Village, Downtown Brooklyn, NYU's 12 global campuses, and beyond.
Independent community news and culture site that covers local and global music, arts, nightlife, and cultural events from a deep and fiercely independent point of view, as well as reporting on vital news stories and issues with a diverse array of community voices.
Independent news site based in the Mission District focuses on high-impact, enterprise reporting on everything from police reform to corruption at City Hall, housing, and the gig economy.
Nonprofit newsroom that brings local news from often-ignored perspectives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Nonprofit, noncommercial news organization that publishes independent public-interest journalism about under-covered topics, focusing on under-served audiences.
Leading producer of culturally relevant content for the Seattle area: videos, editorial and creative writing, podcasts, and local news coverage curated specifically for an urban audience.
Independent nonprofit news site serving the Pacific Northwest that provides readers with the facts and analysis they need to participate in civic discourse intelligently, and to create a more just, equitable and sustainable society.
Exists to provide opportunity and a voice to low-income and homeless people while taking action for economic, social, and racial justice.
Illuminates a thriving city for newcomers and longtime residents, chronicling the present and our city's rich past with both gravitas and irreverence and tracing our connection to the nation and the world.
Also billed as "Seattle's Only Newspaper," The Stranger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative bi-weekly paper started by The Onion, co-founded Tim Keck.
Austin's independent news source for more than four decades, expressing the community's political and environmental concerns and supporting its vibrant cultural scene.
Delivers hard-edged investigative stories about government, politics and business, as well as our pointed, provocative coverage of sports, music, restaurants, and the arts.
The first free major arts, news, and entertainment weekly in Houston is the place for Texans in this part of the state to find out what there is to do – or what other people did.
Progressive nonprofit news outlet and print magazine that strives to make Texas a more equitable place through investigative reporting, narrative storytelling, and political and cultural coverage and commentary.
The only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.