Strengthening News Ecosystems at Scale: State-level Interventions

Some states around the country are responding to the local news crisis with state-wide initiatives to catalyze broad-based innovation, collaboration, and funding for local news ecosystems. The New Mexico Local News Fund leverages support from a number of state-level and national foundations to grow the state’s infrastructure of local news through grant-making and organizational support. In a somewhat different model, the Colorado Media Project’s COLab involves journalists from over 100 Colorado news outlets on a variety of collaborative reporting projects; the project aims “to strengthen and transform local journalism at an ecosystem level by catalyzing a broad-based coalition of information providers.”1 De Vigal, “Shifting from a scarcity mindset.” According to Nancy Watzman, former executive editor for the Colorado Media Project, these kinds of state-level supports are an important intervention because,

“In today’s climate for local news, it’s hard for any one news organization to meet all the challenges alone….State-based organizations that serve as hubs to support local news ecosystems can help local news organizations by fostering collaboration, exploring ways to generate more revenue together, build cost-saving infrastructure, and developing community support. With this kind of support, the sum is much larger than the individual parts.”2Quoted in Mark Glaser, “5 business models for local news to watch in 2020,” Knight Foundation (7 January 2020).

Similar efforts are underway around the country in various cities, such as the Houston Local News Initiative, and at the state level, such as  North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and The Nebraska Reporting Fund.

Going further, some states are considering and even implementing state funding to support a healthier local news ecosystem–some modeled on recent efforts at the federal level.3 Thus far, enacting these federal government funding ideas has proven elusive. In the U.S. context, advocating for government funding for media is a fraught topic, given American attachment to the idea that the “Congress shall make no law” clause of the First Amendment ties the federal government’s hands regarding the local news crisis; see Regina G. Lawrence and Timothy Cook, eds., Freeing the Presses: The First Amendment in Action, 2d edition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014). Both scholarship and advocacy on this point are evolving, however; see Pickard, Democracy without journalism? Notably, most federal and state-level efforts involve indirect rather than direct government subsidies to local media. Various recent congressional proposals have sought to provide tax breaks and direct subsidies to local outlets, advertisers and subscribers, features of HR 7640, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, that attracted more than 70 co-sponsors from both parties. Certain provisions of the Build Back Better Act also aimed to help local newsrooms with an earmarked payroll tax credit.

The Colorado Media Project recently spearheaded state-level efforts to reimagine the role of public funding in the future of local news. Under the banner of “Local news is a public good,” the CMP has advocated for the role “state and local governments [can] play…in stabilizing and sustaining the future of local news, information, and independent journalism.”4Colorado Media Project, “Local news is a public good: Public pathways for supporting Coloradans civic news and information needs in the 21st century” (n.d.). At the national level, Rebuild Local News, an organization representing the National Newspaper Association, National Newspaper Publishers Association, and other industry groups, has framed their advocacy for these sorts of interventions as strengthening “democracy’s civic infrastructure.”

Reimagining the relationship between government support and local news ecosystems has gone farthest in New Jersey, where in 2018 the state legislature passed a Civic Information Bill creating state-level funding to spur innovation and transformation of local news, overseen by an appointed 15-member non-profit New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. The Consortium, a collaboration of five of the state’s leading universities and overseen by a board appointed by the governor, legislature, participation universities as well as technology and community groups,  “builds off the foundation laid by public media in the United States, and reimagines how public funding can be used to address the growing problem of news deserts, misinformation, and support more informed communities.”5New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, “About the consortium” (n.d.). In 2021, the state provided $500,000 for the Consortium to support innovations in local news through grant-making.6New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, “Groundbreaking New Jersey initiative announces inaugural series of grants to fund local news and information” (11 June 2021). As of early 2022, the consortium had distributed $1.35 million in public funds into initiatives “that benefit the state’s civic life and meet the evolving information needs of New Jersey’s communities.”7Free Press, “Why the Civic Info Consortium is Such a Huge Deal” (24 March 2022).

Oregon has – so far – not seen the same level of coordinated, statewide action some other states are taking to bolster our civic information infrastructure. Building state-level ecosystem support here in Oregon similar to efforts being tried in other parts of the country is one way in which  a larger role could be played by foundations, philanthropies, universities, and journalism support organizations.

NEXT » Conclusion and Recommendations