Growth in public funding for news and information at the state and local levels

By now the crisis-for-local-news narrative is familiar. Everyone paying attention knows that the advertising-supported business model only barely pays the bills (e.g. Pickard, 2022), while the platforms (primarily Google and Facebook) get rich (Bell, 2021). We are aware of the problem of mis/disinformation seeping down to the local level, sometimes in the form of pink slime outlets (Bengani, 2019). And attention is still fragmented as only the most civically engaged tune in to local journalism (Prior, 2007).

However, there are bright spots, too: Nonprofit news outlets continue to multiply in number (INN, 2022). Philanthropy is pouring money into journalism at an unprecedented rate (Glaser, 2021). Local news outlets are gaining reliable audience revenue in the form of subscriptions and memberships (Chandler, 2022). And now, for the first time, there is growth in public funding for news and information initiatives at the state and local levels.

Here in New Jersey the Civic Information Consortium, begun in 2018, is entering its fourth round of grantmaking. Nearly $2.5 million has gone to 27 projects that span from arts organizations to local nonprofits to hyperlocal news startups. What began as a hope and a prayer has now turned into a robust funding mechanism to strengthen the state’s news and information for the digital age (Rispoli, 2022).

And New Jersey’s not alone. In California, the state legislature just granted $25 million “to support and strengthen local reporting in underserved and historically underrepresented areas across the state” (Natividad, 2022), a program which will be run out of the University of California-Berkeley. The Wisconsin legislature considered (but failed to pass) a tax credit for businesses who advertise in local media, which would have given back 50% of the cost of the ads, up to $5,000. Other innovations at the local level, like news vouchers similar to “democracy vouchers” for campaign financing currently in use in Seattle, are being incubated.

Of course, none of these efforts bring the U.S. anywhere close to other developed democracies in terms of the percentage of GDP spent on public media (Benton, 2022). But by taking these efforts down to the state level, we are able to engage people in a way that’s not possible when hyperpartisan politicians in Washington DC are fighting over Big Bird.

Sarah Stonbely, PhD is the research director at the Center for Cooperative Media in Montclair, New Jersey.

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