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  • Writer's pictureScott Sutherland

Will It Take Large Public Investment To Stem Accelerating Crisis in Decline of News?

The accelerating decline in the number of news outlets, locally and nationally, and the corresponding decline in news gatherers and reporters is creating an information crisis in America. This crisis also corresponds with and is encouraged by the soaring growth in audience and usage of social media, which is rife with conspiracy theories and outright misinformation.

Media outlets have experimented with a number of different revenue sources that might stem the tide of decline. Subscription models, which initially showed some promise, are now falling by the wayside as publishers discover the increase in revenue in charging for news is offset by declines in advertising to a much smaller audience. New experiments with loyalty models, membership models and even micropayments are showing some positive signs, but they may not deliver results quickly enough to stem the continued rapid decline in new outlets and news reporters.

It’s probably past time we look at a funding model that is by far the most controversial but offers the broadest and deepest resources for the response necessary to this growing news crisis. That funding model involves using public dollars to invest in objective news gathering. 

One of the broadest and grandest public investments in news gathering is getting underway this year in California, which has the nation’s largest population and its most startling news desert. Two California counties no longer have any kind of newspaper at all. From 2004 to 2019, the state has seen a 24 percent overall decline in the number of functioning newspapers. 

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 179, which dedicated $25 million to funding local reporting in places in the state that are underserved and underrepresented by the media. CA Bill 179 represents the largest state-level public investment in local news in history. The funds will be distributed through a fellowship program housed at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. The legislation seeks to put 120 journalists in the field for three-year terms by 2025. 

Other states almost launching or already implementing experiments designed to support local journalism include New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Washington, Wisconsin and others.

While states are using public resources to meet the sharpening decline in local news reporting and publishing, the news crisis has not gone unnoticed in Washington, DC. The Future of Local News Act, introduced by Democrats in May of 2021, aimed to create a 13-member panel to study the complex landscape and recommend ways Congress can act. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act would have allocated $1 billion for local journalism. However, it died when the House failed to pass the Build Back Better Act.

The provisions within the Act would have supported local journalism in three key ways: a $250 maximum tax credit for individuals paying for a local news subscription, a tax credit of up to $5,000 for small businesses to advertise with local outlets, and a payroll tax credit for news organizations to help them hire and keep staff.

It may seem far-fetched that in this day and age of budget battles galore Congress might bring public dollars to bear against the news crisis. But, current polling shows the electorate would support this investment. A 2019 Gallup/Knight study found 86 percent of American adults believe everyone should have access to local news. Six in 10 “consider the local newspaper in their community an important symbol of civic pride,” Gallup/Knight found.


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