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Government funds local news — and that’s a good thing

“And when we start treating people not as consumers but as constituents, we’ll find new ideas, new allies and new resources to reverse the downward spiral in local journalism and restore the public’s trust in the news.”

Public funding for journalism?!?! The shock! The horror!

Got that knee-jerk reaction out of your system? Great. Because 2019 will be the year that more governments start funding local news — and that’s a good thing.

If we’re serious about journalism’s essential role in our democracy, then we need to get serious about finding new ways to respond to how the collapse of local news is harming communities.

First, we need to engage with and listen to those communities a lot more. And when we start treating people not as consumers but as constituents, we’ll find new ideas, new allies, and new resources to reverse the downward spiral in local journalism and restore the public’s trust in the news.

In fact, that’s already starting to happen.

In New Jersey this year, thousands of residents organized, rallied and lobbied lawmakers to pass the Civic Info Bill. This landmark legislation has created a first-of-its-kind public fund to support quality journalism, promising media startups and other efforts meant to better inform communities.

After years of working in New Jersey and hearing how the loss of local news negatively impacted people’s lives, our group Free Press Action conceived the Civic Info Bill and led the grassroots campaign to build bipartisan support for this landmark legislation. Instead of treating residents like passive customers, we activated a statewide network of dedicated partners to reimagine the future of news and information in New Jersey.

The first $5 million for the Civic Information Consortium has gotten hung up in a procedural dispute between the governor and the legislature, but 2019 will be the year the effort gets funded, the independent board is established, and checks are written to support innovative local projects.

While a few million dollars won’t solve all the problems facing journalism in America, it’s a first step toward expanding what’s possible and showing that public funds should be part of the answer to the journalism crisis.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen more newsrooms move outside their comfort zones and begin embracing community engagement to better understand how to serve their audiences’ needs. And we’re seeing the engaged-journalism space grow and push these ideas even further with civically minded news organizations like City Bureau, Outlier Media, and Resolve Philadelphia leading the way.

In 2019, we need to push things even further and move from community engagement to community activation. In some cases, that means the public will join in new ways to support media and create their own. In other cases, it’ll take the form of pressuring public officials to fund efforts to strengthen local-news coverage and boost civic engagement in communities across the country.

In 2019, Free Press will fight to pass legislation like the Civic Info Bill in additional states and will urge states, municipalities and local institutions to come up with their own creative ways to sustain the news we need.

The rest of the world is already moving ahead of us in looking at ways to support local media. Canada just devoted nearly $600 million to boost the country’s journalism. Great Britain is redirecting $10 million from the BBC’s budget to local news outlets. Australia is considering taxing platform giants to support quality news.

These are the kinds of ideas we need to start debating here. Government funding isn’t the only answer, but neither is philanthropy or blockchain or Jeff Bezos.

And it’s time to retire claims that government funding equals government interference. It isn’t true in places like England or Germany any more than it is at NPR. There are proven ways to build firewalls to shield newsrooms from funders and create independent oversight on how the money is spent. Better still, we should engage the public on setting funding priorities.

Let’s keep in mind that for more than 50 years the United States has dedicated public money for public-interest programming. What’s come out of that? Cultural touchstones like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and hard-hitting journalism like Frontline. 2019 could be the year we seed a new generation of programs, outlets, and technology that respond to local needs and reflect our diverse communities.

Publicly funded media has always sought to produce news and information that serve the public interest and fill gaps in community coverage. Those gaps have become chasms that are harming our democracy, and 2019 will be the year that governments finally step up to address the local-news crisis.

Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press and Free Press Action, where Mike Rispoli is the director of the News Voices project.

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