So why aren’t advocates for local news more excited?
It’s no secret California’s newspaper industry has been decimated in recent years. According to Free Press Action, a non-partisan journalism advocacy group, the Golden State has lost 25 percent of its newspapers and experienced a 50 percent drop in circulation over the past 15 years.
A recently introduced bill in the California State Legislature, SB 911, could help stem this crisis, in part by providing a one-off allocation of $50 million from a budget surplus to help fund local journalism in the state over five years.
The only question is where the bill’s supporters are.
The California State Senate’s Governmental Organization Committee voted 8-4 on March 29 to advance the bill, with the senate’s Appropriations Committee likely to hear it later this spring. Prior to the vote, though, just two people, Darren LaShelle of Northern California Public Media and Jessica Gonzalez of Free Press Action, spoke in support of the bill.
Though Gonzalez spoke, Free Press Action is not yet endorsing the bill. Other groups whose buy-in could be needed for a bill of this sort to pass, from the California News Publishers Association (CNPA), the First Amendment Coalition, and California Common Cause, have also yet to come out in formal support of the legislation.
“I think that the purpose of the bill, which is to fund local journalism, is undoubtedly a good one,” said David Snyder, executive director the First Amendment Coalition. “Local journalism has really taken a hit, a series of hits, a series of a lot of hits, over the last 20 years.”
Snyder, like others, though, expressed concerns about how this legislation could work in practice, including the optics of government funding the very reporters covering it.
Though the bill was introduced Feb. 2 by Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), who announced weeks later that he is running for California State Controller, the concept of funding public journalism in America is fairly nascent, but not entirely new.
In addition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has operated since 1967, a number of states in recent years have looked at public funding mechanisms for media.
Legislation introduced in 2017 created the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which began distributing $35,000 grants to media organizations in that state in the past year. (In 2005, a city in that state, Newark, also infamously agreed to pay $100,000 to a weekly paper to publish good news about it.) Mike Rispoli, senior director of journalism policy for Free Press Action, which helped create and pass the New Jersey law, said New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Colorado have all explored public funding for journalism as well.
“I cannot imagine a future of sustainable and community-centered local news that does not have any sort of public funding in it,” Rispoli said. “The math doesn’t add up.”
Journalism has struggled mightily over the past 10 or 20 years while websites such as Google, Facebook, and Craigslist have devoured ad revenue. Meanwhile, former subscribers have flocked to free online news while once-formidable newspapers have shrunk to the size of supermarket circulars, cut days of distribution, and reduced operations.
“Craigslist and Google and Facebook and everything else have thoroughly cannibalized all of the ways that local journalism makes money,” said Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), a co-author of the legislation.
For the communities that lose their newspapers altogether, the results are devastating from a community-involvement standpoint. “The data shows that when a local newspaper dies, civic engagement and voter turnout goes down, polarization goes up,” said Maya Chupkov, media and democracy program manager for California Common Cause.
Still, trying to get the public to voluntarily support journalism hasn’t been easy. “People have not totally gotten their head around the idea that journalism is something that they have to support with their personal money, ’cause it was not that way for so long,” said Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of the Bay Area-based Media Alliance.
Glazer referred comment to a spokesman, Steven Harmon, who spent 27 years as a journalist.
“We’re hoping to be the trendsetter,” Harmon said. “We’re hoping to show the rest of the country that the importance of journalism and the importance of democracy are at the heart of this bill.” Whether more supporters will eventually come out of the woodwork remains to be seen.
Some concerns rest with the preceding legislation out of New Jersey. Brittney Barsotti, general counsel for CNPA, said of the 14 organizations who got grants through the first round of funding, just one was an ethnic media organization, with most being community-based democracy groups.
“We should look at what we’re basing this off of before we decide to jump on this model,” said Barsotti, who noted that CNPA is hopeful of being able to support the bill, and provided recent proposed amendments to Sen. Glazer’s office.
While the bill would set aside 25 percent of funds for ethnic media organizations in the state, interestingly, some do not want to be helped. Dr. John E. Warren, publisher of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, the city’s largest African-American newspaper, said that if media is run responsibly as a business, public funding is unnecessary.
“The public funding always carries issues with it,” Warren said.
Snyder said some in journalism are wary of being funded by an organization they cover, with the possibility of journalists having to worry that what they write could lead to funding being pulled. While a landmark 1927 Supreme Court case, Near v. Minnesota, has long barred the practice of “prior restraint,” or the censorship of news in advance of publication, this wouldn’t extend to inalienable funding.
“A prior restraint is something that says, ‘You may not publish,’” Snyder said. “It’s not the same thing as saying, ‘We gave you funding last year. We’re not going to this year.’”
There are also concerns about the public agency, the California Board to Fund Public Interest Media, which would be created to distribute the funds. “We strongly think that if this board comes to fruition … there should be a voice representing labor on this,” said Michael Applegate, executive officer for Pacific Media Workers Guild Local Member 39521.
For now, the bill could have a long road in front of it. At the hearing on March 29, the vote was strictly along partly lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans against. “The noble intent of this, I support,” Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) said during the hearing. “But I am always wary of giving more power to government.”
There’s a chance the legislature’s Democratic supermajority—60 Democrats, 19 Republicans, and one independent in the assembly, and 31 Democrats and nine Republicans in the senate—could herald the bill’s eventual passage, though it’s too early to tell, even for the bill’s authors.
“It’s going to be a tough haul when you’re talking about the amount of money that we’re hoping to put into the bill,” Harmon said.
Still, people like Snyder are hopeful.
“We’re definitely tracking the bill and following it,” Snyder said. “It could be a very significant contribution to the local journalism world.”