Whose job it is to revive local journalism in California?
Our state’s elites have a clear, if dubious, answer to that question: themselves.
These days, wealthy people and companies consider restoring a public-spirited local media to be a worthy cause. Last year, Google announced it was putting $300 million into supporting local news. A few weeks ago, Facebook announced its own $300 million local news initiative. Philanthropists and foundations have invested in news nonprofits, like the Voice of San Diego. And in Southern California, billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has purchased the Los Angeles Times and devoted new resources to it after a generation of unceasing cuts.
That such investments are celebrated is understandable, because local media need every dollar they can get. Since 2001, American newspapers—the places where most original reporting is done—have lost more than half their workers. The same is true in California, where larger newspapers have suffered big cutbacks, and many smaller papers have radically downsized or disappeared entirely.
But philanthropic grants are temporary, and tech companies abandon strategies in the flash of an electron. So, they aren’t long-term solutions to the fundamental problem for local media: finding a stable source of funding for telling community stories and holding our local governments accountable.
The real solution to that problem lies not with the rich but with the people who live in California’s local communities, and who really need news and accountability. And the most sustainable way to restore local media is to have local taxpayers foot the bill.
Let me pause here while you lose your mind.
Taxpayer-funded media, like the BBC, may be one of the world’s most enduring models for supporting the media coverage that democracies need. But to Americans of all political stripes, the notion of direct local government support for coverage of local communities sounds absurd: If it’s not a socialist plot, it’s a conflict of interest.
That dismissive attitude is why what I’m about to suggest is unlikely to happen. But it doesn’t change the fact that if you want to support truly local media that serves democracy, the best way to do it is via local democracy.
The reasons for this are myriad. For starters, it’s not so different from the way things worked before. Local papers have long been subsidized by advertising from local businesses whose owners double as city commissioners and council members. Also, the money paid to newspapers to publish the legal notices of local governments was really another form of subsidy.
Another reason for taxpayer-funded local media is simple politics. Local governments—and especially the people who work in them, as well as their critics—are the strongest potential supporters for any effort to revive local media. It is precisely the coverage of local civic life that has suffered most in recent years.
As I travel this state of 500 cities and thousands of other local government districts, the complaint I hear most—from local officials and from the civic-minded—is that they no longer have publications that explain in detail what local governments are doing, or explore what community needs aren’t being addressed. Academic studies show this lack of media coverage results in lower voter turnout (sometimes in single digits in California cities), less responsive local politicians, and more problems for local government finances.
Responsible local governments do what they can to fill this void by putting as much information as possible online. And some even produce their own newsletters—you can see good ones from Monterey to Mendota—to get information out. But that’s not the same as having journalists who spend all their time talking to people and telling stories about their community.
Deep local coverage is as essential as any other public service that local governments provide. Local journalists hold wrongdoers accountable, as police do; they respond in emergencies as surely as the fire department does; they let people know where and when to gather, just like the parks department; and they provide context and knowledge as certainly as the local library does.
And, since the free market can’t provide local media services in small towns, it’s necessary that local governments step in and do so.
But how? Local governments should establish separate local media bureaus as nonprofits or quasi-governmental entities, as cities sometimes do to manage a civic auditorium or special project. That entity could hire journalists who would be assigned to cover as much of the community as they can. Local rules should make explicit that local elected officials and staff can’t participate in coverage decisions.
These local media operations would have to be funded outside the normal budget of the city, so budget cuts couldn’t be used to punish unwelcome coverage. That would be a challenge for California’s local governments, which are often short on cash. But I can think of one area of local spending that could be repurposed to support this: lobbying fees.
In fact, California’s local governments—not corporations or labor unions—are by far the biggest spenders on lobbyists and lobbying; that spending has surged since Prop 13, which centralized budget decisions in the Capitol. And the tens of millions of dollars—more than $50 million annually—that our local governments spend on lobbying is a big reason why there are so many new buildings and nice restaurants in downtown Sacramento. And still cities complain about being stiffed by the state. So why not use such money to seed local news departments all over the state?
But that wouldn’t be enough. To have sufficient reporting in every community, towns and cities would have to raise their own money, and the best way to do that would be a local tax or fee, with perhaps a state match of some sort to give an extra boost to smaller communities.
When people know they themselves are paying for the local media, they are more likely to read it, and complain if it’s not really serving them. This local funding, and the accountability it brings, should make the local news livelier, more grounded in community, and more interesting. This vision, of local news as something that should be fought over, is very different than the elite attitude that news is, like dietary fiber, something that is good for you and must be provided from on high by credentialed people.
Today’s philanthropic plans to fund local media are similarly high-minded, and so they lack the connection to local communities and accountability that tax-supported local media might offer. Take Google’s $300 million local news initiative, which is focused not on the community level but rather on working with existing media and universities to advance technologies and new media models. In effect, the company is leading a search for innovations that advance the media business rather than meeting the needs of specific communities.
For its part, Facebook says it wants to support local journalists, but it is sending its money through national funds and nonprofits, with the hope that the money will trickle down. It’s also hard to trust Facebook’s word when it comes to media, given how it jerked the chains of publishers by promoting an expensive shift to video, then retreating from it. And since Google and Facebook took so much of the ad money that once supported local news, it’s difficult to see them as the charitable saviors of local news they claim to be.
Philanthropic and corporate donations could still be useful if they were directed at the sort of publicly funded local news operations that I’m suggesting. But, in such a system, local journalists would not be begging for grants from the rich. Instead, the locals would have their base funding in place from taxpayers, so they could resist donors with agendas.
The fundamental principle is this: If there is going to be a real revival of local journalism, the journalists will need to work for the locals.