An antique television set in with grainy, static words on the screen reading, “For Us By Us”.
Image credit: Ajeet Mestry on

Whether or not you know exactly who owns what you see, hear, and read, you should know that media has an ownership problem.

Did you know that just six large corporations control 90 percent of what people in the United States watch and read? Did you know that a handful of billionaires and asset managers have been buying up local newspapers, magazines, and TV stations? Do you suppose this increased corporate ownership influences what people know and think?

Whether or not you know exactly who owns what you see, hear, and read, you should know that media has an ownership problem. As media ownership is being consolidated, layoffs are on a steady rise across the sector, and more Americans than ever turn to digital outlets for news. And as platform giants increasingly swallow up revenue that used to support news outlets, they have an outsized ability to sway what appears in people’s news feeds. This causes a vicious cycle that provokes more private buyouts, leading to budget cuts and newsroom shrinkage, which further narrows coverage.

When a few ultrarich entities prioritize profits over public information, stories are at a huge risk of being one-sided—or never made public at all. Access to news is key to an engaged civil society, and without it, social worlds shrink and become suffused with disinformation and bias. Although commercial media has always been owned by the wealthy, it is clear that we are in a new era that is in desperate need for new democratic models. Massive amounts of media organizing, funding for nonprofit journalism, and creative strategies for elevating movement stories have proliferated in an attempt to fight fire with fire and mitigate the crisis that commercialism has caused.

Can we create a truly free press?

New Movements, New Media

The idea that we need media that supports movements is not exactly new. Mainstream media sometimes offers the kind of investigative reporting that exposes bad corporate actors and sheds light on the power structures governing politics and the economy. But today, progressive media needs to go one step further on the offensive: highlighting hegemony and telling stories that incite social transformation.

US history certainly has several versions of these better models—things like progressive media outlets, community-owned newspapers, and worker-owned media cooperatives—that speak truth to power and give strength to movements. But because these are in much fewer numbers than we need, creating a new model that can combat the problems of corporatized journalism should be on the minds of anyone working in movements for social justice today.

Today, progressive media needs to go one step further on the offensive: highlighting hegemony and telling stories that incite social transformation.

Media coverage of movements for social justice have a strong effect on whether those movements grow in support and achieve their goals, but corporate media conglomerates often suppress or distort movement aims. Whether underrepresenting attendance at protests against war, vilifying protestors for “riots,” or blaming striking workers for threatening economic prosperity with their demands, the stories told in mainstream media about why people want social transformation offer one-sided interpretations that uphold the status quo under the guise of “objective” journalism.

It’s no surprise why this happens. When the elite are in control of what can be shown on screens or in print, certain narratives are going to be prioritized over others. Movement journalism must counter this bias not with “unbiased” ideas, but with our own narratives of power and strategy. This requires a bold critique of social issues, brave criticism of our own movements, and imaginative ideas for paths forward. In an interview with NPQ last year, Alex Han stressed the point that corporate media is actively abdicating an entire set of perspectives in the field by chasing the demands of market innovations in late capitalism. The task for movement media is to fill that space: “To create a powerful media, we need to tell untold stories, interpret the status quo, and strategically popularize our own narratives of power.”

The Rise of Nonprofit Media Funding

Funding nonprofit journalism has been one way of doing what Han describes above, and studies show that both newsrooms and funders agree there should be more funding for journalism from the nonprofit sector. A report released last year, which collected data from over 400 news organizations and 100 funders, shows that foundations and philanthropy are right to invest in media across the board and that newsrooms benefit greatly from it. More than half of funders said they “prefer to fund nonprofit journalism” in particular, with strong support for local journalism and journalism addressing specific issues.

Data from the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) corroborate this path for new media, showing that nonprofit media is not only economically sustainable but also leads to more diverse and stable newsrooms. Organizations like NewsMatch, managed by INN and funded by the Knight Foundation, give funders a direct path to supporting nonprofit journalism through unrestricted grants by running an annual matching campaign, putting fuel in the tank of the nonprofit news movement. Programs like this can help repopulate the desert created by the domination of corporate media over local and community models.

Though these efforts are important, they are imperfect and often insufficient. A report by the Boston Consulting Group said that nonprofit newsrooms receive an estimated $150 million in funding—but they need about 10 times that, especially considering that corporate media conglomerates wield exponentially more (Warner Bros, which owns CNN, for example, is valued at $24.29 billion). Furthermore, nonprofit news funding is plagued by its own problems according to an investigative article by Nieman Lab, including familiar issues like a desire for more direct funding and inequalities between funding for different kinds of coverage.

Although funding nonprofit newsrooms is a necessary arm of a plural strategy for taking back the news, granting newsrooms unrestricted funds is just one solution for a wider set of issues. NPQ recently published an article about other strategies in the media sector that target corporate domination, such as organizations like The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which helps underrepresented journalists place undertold stories in popular media outlets, or the rapid increase in unionization across the media sector. There are also more video-focused outlets such as More Perfect Union, a nonprofit funded by the Open Society Foundations, geared toward education, advocacy, and journalism that builds power for the working class.

While this article does not include every worker-owned cooperative and independently funded newsroom that tries to tell better stories to change the economy, the point is that there is a real effort in the sector to focus media on social justice issues. These multiple strands in the fight to reclaim journalism make it clear that to take down corporate giants, we need several slingshots.

Labor Creates All Wealth—Can It Fund Journalism?

Nonprofit funders can surely dedicate larger swathes of funding to alternative models. But one particular movement might have the means to do it: labor. Labor reporter Kim Kelly put the question clearly: “People want to read labor stories; workers want their stories told; reporters want to write about them, but resources are scarce. What if the AFL-CIO or a few big unions created a labor journalism fund?”

Kelly is right to put this question to the AFL-CIO because labor is, at the moment, “flush with cash”—even as membership has been on the decline in previous decades. Labor reporter Chris Bohner breaks down the numbers: In 2021, he writes, large unions “booked $18 billion in revenues (mostly from [member] dues) and spent $15.5 billion on operating expenses—leaving a surplus of $2.5 billion.” Even though union revenue is much less than corporations in general, Bohner explain, their budgets are “substantially bigger than those of environmental, human rights, and political organizations.” The same year, organized labor held $31.6 billion in net assets, making them more resource rich “than any U.S. foundation but one: the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, with $48 billion.”

As it turns out, progressives have been calling on labor to fund media for some time—but the request has historically been ignored. Bernie Sanders recalls that he spoke to former AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland during the federation’s 2017 convention. “What about a national AFL-CIO cable TV station which could educate working people about what’s going on in our society and give them information they never get on commercial TV?” Sanders asked. He was told it couldn’t be done.

Generating mass movements is not just a question of having the right ideas, it requires telling widespread stories of resistance.

Even if the AFL-CIO hasn’t funded labor journalism directly, other organizations have always sprung up to fill the need. A recent podcast by the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies discussed the small but mighty institutions like Labor Notes that have lasted through decades of labor decline and its recent resurgence. Since 1979, the organization’s mission has been to “put the movement back in the labor movement.” Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein highlighted that outlets like Labor Notes have played a key role in truth-telling about how important worker movements are for American democracy: “Labor Notes has been reporting on these movements, encouraging them, and doing investigative reporting” that supports the oppositional movements pushing for democracy both inside unions and against corporate hegemony. Today, as New Labor Forum editor-at-large Micah Uetricht pointed out, Labor Notes has strong partnerships with engaged and powerful unions like the United Auto Workers, which has strategically hired staffers who previously worked for the publication.

In fact, media is one reason the UAW strike was so successful—even though the mainstream media was not always on their side. Corporate outlets elevated narratives about how the strike would “hurt the economy” and provoke a recession, implicitly blaming workers for taking a stand against corporations at the risk of the economy. These stories painted a lopsided picture excluding the massive corporate gains that made the union’s demands reasonable and left out the ways in which the auto companies have been treating workers poorly for decades.

But this strategy fell flat in an era of vast and increasing inequality, when most people are struggling to make ends meet due to the deep imbalance delivering profits and wealth to those at the top. The proof was in the public: the majority of American people supported the autoworker strike, thanks to the union’s renewed investment in using digital and print press to spread their message far and wide and making it resonant with the struggle of everyday Americans.

For Us, By Us

Generating mass movements is not just a question of having the right ideas, it requires telling widespread stories of resistance. To reinvent media along these lines, we must not only direct funding to bolster alternative models that already exist. We also have to take back mass media and use it to tell better stories toward our collective freedom, foster community and worker ownership over the news, and fund public media that works for the people.

Most of all, we need to create rules to make sure that a handful of companies or wealthy individuals do not own what we know. Breaking the grip of media conglomerates on the press can happen in many ways, but its multiple paths lead to media that is for everyone—not for profit.