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The California Journalism Preservation Act would do more harm than good. Here’s how the state might better help news

“If there are resources to be put to work, we must ask where those resources should come from, who should receive them, and on what basis they should be distributed.”

The California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA) — like its federal cousin, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) — is the latest in a century’s attempts by the newspaper industry to diminish fair use and extend copyright for the benefit of publishers against competitors.

Both bills are championed by the News Media Alliance, trade association and lobbyist for the newspaper and now magazine industries. They aim to force large internet platforms — namely Google and Meta — to “negotiate” with news publishers and submit to arbitration for the right to link to and thus quote headlines. JCPA would grant publishers an exemption from antitrust to form a cartel. CJPA would require negotiation and payment based on the number of links to a news site.

These bills are descendants of similar legislation in other countries, starting with Germany’s 2013 ancillary copyright, Spain’s link tax of 2015, the EU’s Copyright Directive of 2019, Australia’s bargaining code of 2020, and most recently Canada’s C-18, which resulted in Meta pulling all news, links to news, and payments to news organizations out of the country. Meta has said that if CJPA passes, it will do the same in California, leaving just one company — Google — held responsible for support of the entire news industry. Google agreed to pay Canadian publishers $73 million but as Jeff Elgie, founder of Village Media, concludes, “Keep your damn money and give us the Facebook traffic back.”

Recently, the California Chamber of Commerce commissioned me to write a paper in which I analyze the legislation and propose alternatives. All these laws are predicated on the publishers’ contention that linking to and quoting news is theft. In the paper I argue the opposite: that links benefit publishers by helping audiences discover news content; it is free promotion. All these laws exclude any consideration of the value of platforms’ links to publishers. This is not negotiation in good faith.

In preparation for releasing excerpts of the paper on Nieman Lab, I asked Loren Kaye, president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, affiliated with the state’s Chamber of Commerce, why they commissioned it. He responded: “We commissioned the paper because this issue, which is obviously of global interest, could potentially have a profound impact on Californians’ access to and consumption of journalism. Access to news is of deep interest to California businesses.” The Chamber of Commerce had no influence on the content or conclusions of the paper.

In the first of two excerpts from the paper here, I discuss many weaknesses in especially CJPA, including its violation of copyright law and principles of fair use; its likely violation of the First Amendment with a no-retaliation clause requiring platforms to carry certain content; the fact that it would benefit national and international news organizations — likely including extremist media masquerading as news — far more than Californian news organizations; and that it excludes much community, Black, Latino, LGBTQ+, diasporic, digital, and startup media that do not meet its $100,000 revenue requirement or that serve communities through means other than links, such as text, WhatsApp, and, yes, printed newspapers.

In the full paper — which can be read here — I review the relationship of news to copyright, noting that U.S. law did not cover newspapers and magazines until 1909 and still does not grant publishers the property rights over news that they claim.

I look at the history of consolidation in California’s news industry, beginning with collusion by Los Angeles’ two publishers to each close a competitive newspaper on the same day in 1962. Today’s California news ecosystem — when viewed past the legacy metro newspapers, the majority of them now controlled by hedge funds — is vibrant and varied, with much innovation coming from startup, public, and ethnic media.

And I examine the history of the newspaper industry’s hostile reaction to new technology and competitors: for example, how it tried to exclude radio from the news business, claiming the new medium was bad for democracy, and ultimately succeeding in getting it regulated.

The paper ends with a section also excerpted here, which catalogs a wide array of possible alternatives to supporting news in California — and anywhere. Some advocate expansion of public-notice advertising; others suggest tax credits to support the hiring of journalists or the buying of subscriptions or ads. There are many models for networks offering sales and support and collaboration among independent news organizations and other institutions, including universities and libraries. In the end, I suggest that more research is needed — listening to more constituents in the state and its news ecosystem — to consider alternatives and best practices from elsewhere.

CJPA has been approved by the California Assembly and will next be debated in the Senate. Similar legislation was recently proposed in Illinois’ Senate, and three different bills to aid news have been introduced in Wisconsin. The federal JCPA has passed neither house of Congress after multiple attempts but is expected to be proposed again.

CJPA: Issues and questions

Both CJPA and JCPA have gathered support from news publishers and broadcasters as well as journalists, who understandably hope for an infusion of cash into their struggling newsrooms. Nationally, newsrooms have lost more than half their staff since 2008, while employment by digital publishers has grown, but not sufficiently to compensate for legacy’s losses. Newspaper circulation is a third of what it was in the ’70s and ad revenue is a fifth what it was in 2005, while subscription revenue has been flat for the last two decades. No one argues about the sad state of the news industry. As for the policy response, CJPA and JCPA have attracted much criticism and opposition from technology companies, of course, but also from associations of smaller publishers and internet advocates. Here are some of the questions and objections raised:

CJPA violates copyright law. Fair use doctrine as defined in the 1976 Copyright Act stipulates that the use of copyrighted material “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” The Ninth Circuit found in multiple cases that displaying thumbnails or snippets of images is “a fair use primarily based on the transformative nature of a search engine and its benefit to the public.” Quoting and linking to content is transformative in that it serves a different function: “improving access to information on the internet.”

It is critical to note that federal copyright law preempts state law. The 1976 federal statute specifies that all works that “come within the subject matter of copyright…are governed exclusively by this title. Thereafter, no person is entitled to any such right or equivalent right in any such work under the common law or statutes of any State.”

The trade associations supporting CJPA and JCPA — the NMA and National Association of Broadcasters — are pressing for an expansion of copyright and diminishment of fair use not only in the contexts of search engines and social media but also now regarding artificial intelligence, contending that AI companies should be required to license and pay even to read copyrighted material for the purpose of training large language models — itself a transformative use. (See their testimony, alongside that of this paper’s author, before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy Technology and the Law on January 10, 2024.) The French competition authority has fined Google €250 million for reading and using news to train its large language model, Gemini.

CJPA sets up a perverse incentive to create yet more clickbait. Because this is a link tax and the fee structure in the bill is built around how many links a news organization receives on a platform, publishers would be incentivized to produce more commodity content on every topic possible, worsening a problem that already plagues the web and news on it: Rather than doing original reporting, too many newsrooms squander scarce journalistic resource on the less-expensive task of copying and rewriting each others’ stories to create generic content for the sake of search-engine optimization and social clicks, adding nothing of value to the information ecosystem. It is ironic that news organizations complain about platforms — to use the words of the legislation — accessing, crawling, and indexing content, when journalists do that every day when they read, learn from, and repurpose information from each others’ work.

It is important to note that many innovative local and ethnic news organizations provide news in forms other than web sites, links, and clicks: through SMS and WhatsApp, podcasts, video, community events, databases, apps, issue trackers, open office hours, and — especially with Black and Latino media — print. Thus, rewarding links and measuring value according to them misses much of what these news organizations offer and, importantly, does not encourage innovation and experimentation with new forms of news serving people where they are.

California media will receive a small proportion of payments. Because CJPA does not require that a news organization be based in or dedicated to serving residents of California and because its definition of a qualifying publication is extremely broad — it need only provide 25% of its content about “topics of current local, regional, national, or international public interest” (emphasis added) — an untold number of news sites outside the state, including large national media conglomerates and even foreign entities, will qualify for a proportional share of revenue from the law. An analysis by Free Press asserts that California’s independent, nonprofit, or ethnic media sites would receive “much less than” 2% of fees generated under CJPA.

Hedge funds and media conglomerates benefit most from CJPA. Eighteen of California’s top 25 newspapers by circulation are now controlled by hedge funds or private equity — based in New York, New Jersey, and Japan — which have a clear record of harvesting cash flow from the newspapers they own, selling assets, cutting newsrooms to the marrow, and not investing in growth or innovation. A portion of funds from CJPA is required to go to paying journalists. But money is fungible; there can be no assurance that it will not end up instead fortifying parent companies’ bottom lines. On the broadcast side, Free Press’ analysis notes that television stations account for three-quarters of referrals from Meta’s services, and 85% of broadcast stations in its sample studied are owned by national media companies. They, too, will benefit from CJPA.

Much of local, community, Black, and ethnic media will get nothing. CJPA requires that a news organization earn at least $100,000 to qualify for funds — and if they qualify, they will be paid on the basis of how many links they receive on the platforms. This leaves out much of the media the law is intended to serve: community journalism. LION Publishers, an association of independent, local news sites, says that as of 2021, 44% of its members earned less than CJPA’s threshold. Many Black newspapers are still that — newspapers — and thus would not benefit from a link-based fee. “While a number of conglomerates are scoped into the bill, true independent or small newspapers are explicitly excluded,” says Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), serving Black news organizations. Other services, such as Oakland’s El Tímpano, serve users via text; that work would not be rewarded. This legislation is designed to benefit the members of the trade association that wrote it more than people building the future of local journalism.

Funds could support disinformation. Because the legislation carries an overly broad definition of journalism and no standards for journalistic quality, fees can and will go to propaganda sites masquerading as news. Daily Caller, founded by disgraced Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, appears to support the bill. An analysis by the Chamber of Progress, a center-left advocacy organization funded by technology companies, concludes that “disinfo giants” (in its definition, Fox News, the New York Post, Newsmax) will, based on their comparative traffic, receive four times as much in CJPA fees as major California news media, 151 times as much as Latino media, and 844 times as much as Black media.

Compelled speech is not free speech. The CJPA forbids platforms from “retaliating” against news outlets “by refusing to index content or changing the ranking, identification, modification, branding, or placement of the content.” This amounts to a must-carry provision. Note well that freedom of expression protected under the First Amendment includes not only the creation of content but also the choice of what to carry. Newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations, and platforms each have a First Amendment right to decide what they will and will not carry; choice is speech. CJPA does give permission for a platform to enforce its terms of service, but that effectively sets up an opportunity for disinformation and propaganda outlets to harass platforms and demand carriage.

Not only would platforms be forced to carry speech they might object to, but they are further compelled to pay for it. In United States v. United Food, the Supreme Court held that “just as the First Amendment may prevent the government from prohibiting speech, the Amendment may prevent the government from compelling individuals to express certain views…or from compelling certain individuals to pay subsidies for speech to which they object.”

Accountability. As with Australia’s Bargaining Code, CJPA has no mechanism for accountability to audit whether funds are used to expand journalistic coverage or to innovate in the field.

No funding cap. As was the case in Canada’s C-18 — until rectified by negotiation after passage — CJPA specifies no cap on funding required of platforms.

Meta’s stand. In May 2023, Meta spokesperson Andy Stone issued a statement regarding CJPA.

Some speculate CJPA’s passage might trigger Meta to drop news entirely in the U.S. if not the world, which would be a severe blow especially to new and small community news outlets.

Google and Meta are not responsible for the fall of local news. As Meta says in its statement, disruption in California’s news industry goes back long before the rise of these two platforms and the internet itself. As this paper will explore next, early signs of such disruption began in the 1950s, when television reached half of American homes and newspapers folded and consolidated, leaving highly profitable, single-owner monopolies in the state’s largest cities. CJPA is constructed punitively, as if just two California technology companies are responsible for losses in the state’s news industry, and so they should pay in recompense. Internet companies provided competitive offerings to advertisers with lower prices and greater efficiency, efficacy, and accountability. Newspapers’ former advertising clients — auto dealers, real-estate agents, employers, and retailers — took advantage of the opportunities provided by the internet to build their presences online and establish their own direct relationships with customers, reducing their need for advertising in old media. The internet abhors middlemen. Publishers are middlemen who have lost their monopolies and their pricing power. That is the harsh reality of capitalism and technology disruption, not the invention of two internet companies.

Legacy news companies bear responsibility for their present state and fate. In its annual worldwide survey, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford found that 42% of Americans now sometimes or often avoid the news; only a third trust most news most of the time; and the proportion of those very or extremely interested in news has dropped 18%, from 67% to 49% since 2015. The numbers reflect an ideological divide: 22% of those on the left avoid social justice news vs. 70% on the right; for climate news it is 12% on the left vs. 64% on the right. Avoidance of local news in the U.S. is lower than other categories — 7% on the left vs. 14% on the right — but note that is still twice as high on the right. Trust in news overall stands at only 32%, flat since 2015 (versus, for example, 69% in Finland and 57% in the Netherlands). Only 21% of Americans pay for news, even though most newspaper sites have erected paywalls.

There is precious little self-reflection in journalism about news avoidance and lack of trust and willingness to pay, and not much more self-examination in publishers’ suites about their role in the loss of advertising customers. Neither blaming others for their failures nor seeking protectionism are strategies for the future.

CJPA breaks the web. Links are the nervous system of the web. They enable conversation, community, commerce, and collaboration. For Google, links are a signal of validation — one person saying that something is worth seeing, not unlike academic citation. To charge for links — or to require providing them — violates the ethic and architecture of the internet, for links should be freely given and freely followed. To make links a bargaining chip — reward for publishers, punishment for platforms — ill serves users and citizens.

As the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, testified before the Australian legislature related to its Bargaining Code:

“Requiring a charge for a link on the web blocks an important aspect of the value of web content…it would undermine the fundamental principle of the ability to link freely on the web and is inconsistent with how the web has been able to operate over the past three decades. If this precedent were followed elsewhere it could make the web unworkable around the world.”

Vint Cerf, an inventor of the internet, testified:

“Links are the cornerstones of open access to information online; requiring a search engine (or anyone else) to pay for them undermines one of the fundamental principles of the Internet as we know it today…We must not make the mistake of altering the fundamental and flexible ways in which the internet works in order to fix the long-term structural problems that a particular industry was starting to face already years before the internet and the world wide web appeared.”

If California passes such a link tax, it would balkanize the web, isolating California’s internet from the rest of the nation’s and the world’s as, for example, users in Sacramento could see their Facebook without news while users in Reno see a different Facebook with news.

Alternatives

In examining alternatives to CJPA, it is wise to first address the goal. Is it to support news as it was, or news as it could be? Is it to stave off the death of existing news properties or support the growth of new outlets and models that serve communities previously underserved? That is, should hedge fund–controlled newspapers receive funds if they do not invest in growing their coverage? Is the goal to support news alone or the larger information ecosystem and to improve public discourse? Who is being heard in the process of deciding on policy interventions in the market? Who is responsible for the current situation — two corporations or larger technological or societal disruption? And who is responsible for the health of the state’s information ecosystem — those few companies or every business and citizen in the state? Is the question at hand one of intellectual property or subsidy? If there are resources to be put to work, we must ask where those resources should come from, who should receive them, and on what basis they should be distributed.

The first step must be to listen. It is critical that many stakeholders in the future of the state’s information ecosystem be consulted and heard. Note above how some constituencies, such as Black and ethnic media and independent startups, say they believe they are not represented by the legacy industry trade associations driving this process. The consulted stakeholders should include not only media proprietors but also civil society, members of communities, and representatives of other institutions that should have important roles in reimagining a better future for public discourse: librarians, schools, community colleges and universities, researchers, technologists, and local governments as well.

The legislation at hand is the product of trade associations collaborating with legislators at state and federal levels. The conflict of interest inherent in this process must be called out. Journalists assure the public that they act as independent watchdogs of those in power. They should not be in the position of seeking favors from those they cover. Direct payment from large technology companies mandated by government places news organizations and journalists in the position of being beholden to both. That is an ethical lapse. Journalists should not be lobbyists.

A better way to approach questions about the state of the state’s news ecosystem would be to undertake independent study, whether through a state agency, university, or task force. Such research would enable a larger conversation involving multiple stakeholders to examine needs not just of publishers but, more important, of communities. That would provide context for judging some of the ideas presented here.

It is important to understand the information needs of communities. That can begin by building on the work of LAist, which performed many interviews and surveys to identify community needs. See also the methodology of the Knight Foundation’s collaboration with the FCC on a Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy in 2011. This effort should also focus on what is missing in the ecosystem: What communities — defined by geography, ethnicity, or need (e.g., the disabled, the elderly, students, the homeless) — are unheard and underserved? Is there sufficient coverage of state government and politics? What is the impact of news on civic involvement?

Such study might also examine sources of revenue and support for news, including new business models and revenue streams — membership, events, commerce, services — and contributions from corporations, wealthy individuals, and foundations. A 2023 study by the University of Chicago’s NORC with Media Impact Funders and the Lenfest Institute found increased philanthropic support for journalism — 71% of foundations surveyed saying they choose to support local journalism, 50% direct funds to community engagement or investigative journalism, and 38% now considered giving to for-profit news.

It is important that any study undertake to evaluate the quality of journalism provided by various entities, asking frankly what is worth supporting. Journalism is notorious for examining every other sector of society while not engaging in self-examination. There are reasons why, as reported above, well more than a third of citizens actively avoid news. Many communities are damaged. This process should aim to improve, not just subsidize, news.

Here is exploration of alternative ideas along with the questions and issues they raise.

Public-notice advertising. One long-standing subsidy for newspapers has been public-service notices, known in the trade as legal ads. Regina Brown Wilson says this alone could be enough to support some newsrooms serving Black communities; she wants it to go to print newspapers. Ken Doctor wants digital news outlets such as his to be included. How such advertising spending is equitably distributed is a question.

Wilson emphasizes that such advertising is not charity but a fee for service, whose impact and efficacy as advertising can be measured. In 2021, New York City directed $15.6 million or 82% of its $19.1 million advertising budget to go to 230 community and ethnic media outlets. In California, AB1511, introduced in 2023, seeks to “require a state agency or department that expends funds on paid advertising, communications, or outreach to direct 45% of its total expenditures to ethnic media outlets and community media outlets.”

Some states, including Florida and Colorado, have considered no longer requiring placement of notices in newspapers, while in New Jersey, publishers successfully lobbied for it to continue. Towns are known to pull notices from local publications; in some cases, the ads are
used as a political football because of critical coverage, though in others there is legitimate debate about which publications qualify as news outlets of general circulation. For government to decide what is and is not news raises difficult questions: Does that amount to licensing journalism? Given plummeting circulation and market penetration for metro papers, should they still be considered publications of general circulation? Are governments’ own websites a better means of distributing notices?

There is another, more creative way to view governments’ information dissemination needs: as a new business opportunity for news organizations. Local governments are participants in local news ecosystems, for they hold much information of value to their constituents. Innocode, a Norwegian company, creates apps to enable towns to share more information — for example, personalized alerts about nearby building permits. Using artificial intelligence and large language models, citizens might ask questions of building codes, local regulations, budgets, meeting agendas, reports, and other stores of knowledge. Rather than dogging local officials with freedom-of-information demands, how much better it would be if news organizations and local governments could work in partnership for greater civic transparency.

Tax support for news. An obvious political advantage and expediency of CJPA’s structure is that by requiring payment directly to publishers from Google and Meta — if the latter continues to link to news — this avoids establishing a tax, involving the state budget and its necessary approvals. However, if the fate of California’s news is truly of statewide concern, then shouldn’t that be a priority for the state itself and shouldn’t more companies than just Google — shouldn’t taxpayers as a whole — be expected to contribute to healthier civic life in the state? “The link tax is more like a regulated negotiation process akin to intellectual property licensing,” says Andrew Leahey in Bloomberg Tax. “If Canada, California, Germany, or any other jurisdiction wants to tax big tech companies and subsidize news outlets, they should simply do so.”

A study of state and local legislation to support news from 2017 to 2022 counts 24 bills up to that time, some involving general funding and tax incentives; most were not enacted. Local taxation is also an option. In New Jersey, hyperlocal journalist Simon Galperin proposes that municipalities set up info districts — like fire or sewer districts — supported by local tax levies to help local news organizations, such as his Jersey Bee.

Advertising tax. Some have suggested that rather than requiring direct payment from the platforms, a digital advertising tax could be imposed. This implies that a new competitor in a marketplace — having won away business with better prices, performance, or service — owes something to incumbents. Under such logic, Skype, Zoom, and Google Meet would be taxed to pay for the losses of the Baby Bell phone companies; A&P would owe reparations to every corner grocery; and solar- and wind-power providers should subsidize coal mines. But yes, a broader tax would at least create a fairer base for gathering funds for a subsidy.

Once the tax line is crossed and if there is a politically acceptable source for tax revenue, then that opens up different means of collecting funds and also different models for distributing them, including through tax credits.

Employment tax credit. Steven Waldman, president of Rebuild Local News and a founder of Report for America — which places jointly funded reporters into newsrooms across the country — has proposed a number of ideas for supporting news, among them a tax credit for every journalist employed — or, in variant models, for every journalist added or retained. This is appealing simply because journalism requires reporting and reporting requires reporters. An advantage of this model is that unlike CJPA, this rewards the employment of journalists rather than links and clickbait. Since this would be a state tax credit, it would support journalists working in California, not national or international media.

However, money being fungible, there is no guarantee that the credit would lead to an increase in news coverage. Also, many smaller outlets — notably Black and ethnic media — utilize freelancers more than staff and so, unless formulas were established to account for freelance and part-time work and hyperlocal bloggers’ own sweat equity, only larger outlets would benefit from such a credit.

Local advertising tax credit. Another idea endorsed by Rebuild Local News is a tax credit for local businesses buying advertising from local news organizations. This method puts its thumb on the scale for one business model — advertising — potentially excluding public or nonprofit media that do not take sponsorship. It is a non-market intervention to the extent that local merchants may find that other means of marketing — e.g., their own websites, social media targeted advertising, direct mail — are more cost-effective and efficient for them.

Subscription tax credit. Another idea often proposed is a credit or coupon for state residents to use when subscribing to news outlets, resulting in greater subscription revenue for those news outlets. Such a subsidy amounts to another non-market intervention, another thumb on the scale, this time for subscription. That could have the unintended consequence of driving more news behind paywalls, further redlining quality, reliable journalism in favor of those who can and choose to pay for it, leaving the vast majority to consume the disinformation and propaganda that is offered for free. It also would disadvantage nonprofit news outlets and those serving poorer communities that choose to remain free.

A variant on this idea is to provide coupons to transfer funds to any news outlet, whether paywalled or not. Another is to provide free subscriptions to groups, such as students and teachers. For many years, the industry operated a Newspapers in Education program aimed at inculcating a habit of reading news in young people while also selling papers. Out Look Santa Cruz signed up half the county’s 12,000 high-school students, and 100 teachers, for free access. In 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, gave free newspaper subscriptions to 18- to 24-year-olds. In 2019, Canada announced a CAD $600 million plan for a journalism employment tax credit and a credit for 15% of approved news subscriptions, up to CAD $500. In the first year, 1% of Canadians took up the offer, spending an average of CAD $240 on subscriptions with credits averaging CAD $36. Startup news publisher David Skok says the result was “negligible,” as mainly existing subscribers took advantage of the credit, leading to few new subscribers.

Paying for some news to be free. Why not use public funds to pay news organizations to make certain public-service news and journalism free for all — that is, pay for content that is behind paywalls to be made available to the public? If the public is going to be asked to use tax dollars to subsidize the news, shouldn’t the public benefit from that news? In a time when most news from quality, for-profit outlets is retreating behind paywalls, leaving disinformation to rule the web, that creates a crisis of information quality on the internet. What news exactly should be brought out from behind paywalls is one question. Another is whether this would incent more publishers to build paywalls. And another is whether making more stories available would deprive publishers of audience. But in experiments run by the author in New Jersey — making news embeddable across multiple sites — one counterintuitive lesson was that complete stories acted as the most effective promotion, driving more clickthrough than headlines or snippets.

In any case, journalism as a profession needs to examine the impact of paywalls on public discourse. Yes, journalists need to earn a living. But journalism has a higher obligation to the information ecosystem and democracy. Bringing critical news to everyone would be one way to address this moral imperative.

News-sharing networks. California is running its own experiment in embeddable content with a new news-sharing network announced by public broadcaster KQED, working with the Palo Alto–based Distributed Media Lab (DML). The project is funded by the Google News Initiative. Such a network is a mechanism for gathering, choosing, and highlighting the best of California journalism. A KQED producer selects that news, assuring its quality. Participating sites benefit in multiple ways: their content is shared with larger audiences on others’ sites, and they can embed others’ content in their sites to offer their audiences a wider range of quality news. This is also the basis for a sponsorship network for quality journalism, sharing revenue with those that host shared content — so far, 20 sites. “The goal is to be embedded on all quality local news sites in California,” David Gehring, told me in a recent email. “This project builds a model for local news that works on the web the way the web was designed to work,” says Tim Olson of KQED. DML is working to bring the same model to eight more states and to similar networks of Latino, Black, environmental, educational, and other media.

Networks of sites could be established across the state, in regions (see the discussion with LAist about a hub there), and among sites of similar interest (see networks of Black news sites) to share content, collaborate on news coverage, share advertising sales, and more.1

Support networks. Small and independent news sites have needs beyond sharing content, including training, technology, and the sharing of best practices. One such support network is the New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. It offers its more than 400 members — local news organizations and individuals — training in topics from revenue generation to practical uses of AI, as well as individualized mentorship, shared content, stipends for membership in other organizations (e.g., the National Association of Hispanic Journalists), access to the center’s research, and translation services. Nationally, LION Publishers and the Institute for Nonprofit News provide similar services. The state could provide funding to establish such support networks.

Advertising networks. There is a clear need in the state, especially among independent and ethnic media, for joint advertising sales. That should be a private, commercial enterprise. The state could help by placing its public-notice advertising through the network (see above) and by subsidizing its startup expenses. Google, for example, could contribute technology and sales. Ads bought through the network could qualify for a state advertising tax credit.

Philanthropic and matching funds and granting authorities. The state could partner with private efforts to support news, which would leverage the state’s resources and provide infrastructure to screen and certify applicants for funding based not on links but on criteria for quality, impact, diversity, and innovation. There are multiple models for pooled funding.

New Jersey’s Civic Information Consortium was established after the state sold its public TV and radio licenses to stations in New York and Philadelphia, netting $332 million from a spectrum sale to the FCC. Free Press, a public advocacy organization working on media issues, collaborated with legislators to draft a bill requiring that some of those funds be directed to support New Jersey’s news ecosystem. The Consortium, run out of Montclair State, is managed by a 16-member board appointed by public universities, the governor, and the legislature. It holds open calls for grants to support training of professionals and community members, programs to encourage civic engagement, and nonpartisan voter information, giving priority to information gaps, news deserts, and marginalized communities and training “aspiring media makers of color.” The original bill would have granted $20 million to the effort. In the end, it yielded $500,000 in 2021, $2 million in 2022, $4 million in 2023 and 2024, plus $1.52 million raised from other funders, totaling over $12 million. To date, it has issued 82 grants.

The California Public Interest Act of 2022 (SB911) proposed a similar independent, nongovernmental board to give grants of public and private money to news media, to “encourage independent, local public service news coverage” and “establish grant application criteria and procedures, including standards for evaluation of journalistic integrity,” allocating at least 25% of funds to ethnic-owned news and 25% to local news. It was positioned as a Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the state. For such models to be used nationally, political safeguards would need to be designed for states such as Texas and Florida, whose laws requiring platforms to carry even noxious political speech are under review in the Supreme Court. How might standards of journalistic quality be assured, protected from political pressure?

Press Forward is a consortium of 25 major journalism funders in the nation, led by the Knight Foundation and MacArthur Foundation and including the Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation, and California’s Hewlett Foundation. Together, they have pledged $500 million “to strengthen local newsrooms, close longstanding gaps in journalism coverage, advance public policy that expands access to local news, and to scale the infrastructure the sector needs to thrive.” The consortium has encouraged the formation of, to date, 17 local Press Forward chapters led by local funders, such as New Jersey’s Civic Information Consortium and Philadelphia’s Lenfest Institute (a trust housed at Temple University that now owns the Inquirer). California could have its own Press Forward chapter or an equivalent such as that envisioned in SB-911 to encourage community foundations and high-wealth individuals (of whom the state has many) to take part in supporting the news ecosystem, and to manage grants. The chapter could receive seed or matching funds from the state to encourage its establishment and growth.

Another consortium, the American Journalism Project, has raised $168 million — including from California technology companies Google, Meta, and OpenAI — to support 44 nonprofit news organizations, as well as starting four new newsrooms. Its California grantees include Cityside (Berkeleyside, The Oaklandside, and Nosh), inewsource, and San José Spotlight.

Newsmatch is a project of the Institute for Nonprofit News benefitting its 425 members by encouraging foundations — it lists almost 20 — to provide funding to match contributions from the public. Since 2017, it has raised more than $271 million. This is a variation on the subscription tax credit or voucher ideas above: a means to encourage contributions to news outlets from the public. The state could work with local foundations to match or give tax credits for those contributions, giving the public a vote in where funds are allocated. As with many of the ideas here, there needs to be a mechanism for deciding what organizations qualify as journalistic.

Public media’s role. As demonstrated with LAist’s reorganization and KQED’s news network, public media are taking a leadership role in innovating ways to provide news to their communities and services to the larger media ecosystem. This is part of a nationwide trend that is taking many shapes. In Chicago, as the Tribune continued to deteriorate under Media News Group ownership, Chicago Public Media (WBEZ) bought the second-place Sun-Times, taking down its paywall and expanding the demographics of those served by public media. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Steinman family converted the newspaper it published for 158 years, LNP, to a public-benefit corporation, and donated it to public broadcaster WITF, while endowing the Steinman Institute for Civic Engagement to support community and journalist education. In nearby Scranton, the Times-Tribune was sold to Alden’s Media News Group, immediately laying off much of its staff. WVIA public media is stepping into the gap, creating a growing newsroom of a dozen journalists. A 2022 study found that from 2016 to 2021, public media’s employment of journalists rose from 3,694 to 4,148 and that more than 40 public radio stations supported newsrooms of at least 15 journalists; a quarter of those had at least 40 full-time journalists.

Public media may be best positioned to take on the role once performed by monopoly newspapers but with a greater public-service mission to provide news to the entire community. Public media stations in California have joined together in a California Regional Newsroom, with five stations coordinating statewide and investigative coverage. How might private or state support enable the expansion of public media’s role, buying or starting other news media, promoting quality journalism, and sharing coverage, training, technology, and support for patronage and philanthropy? How might public funds help public media become yet more public?

Capital funds for local ownership and growth. It would be a mistake to presume all California news media should be not-for-profit, for there is not enough philanthropy and generosity to support the journalism needed. Some argue news should become a public good, paid for by government — though if the degree of difficulty entailed in enacting CJPA is any indication, that would be politically difficult, journalistically compromising, and economically insufficient.

Much of news must still be a profitable, thus sustainable, enterprise. To accomplish that, there needs to be investment in new ventures, in innovation by existing ventures, and in rescuing some troubled ventures. Ken Doctor started his Lookout Santa Cruz with initial funds of $2.4 million, adding $1 million. He’s raising $4 million to launch a second of a planned five sites. Not every news startup needs such financing. A lone journalist covering a town or topic needs dollars measured in the thousands to get started and build a critical mass of audience and revenue.

Many of California’s newspapers and broadcasters are controlled by out-of-state corporations. In the not-for-profit National Trust for Local News under founder Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro there is a model for acquiring papers before they fall into ownership by hedge funds. The Trust recently bought most of Maine’s newspapers — five dailies and 17 weeklies. The National Trust even bought presses in Colorado to help outlets that still print there to do so economically. Many Black and Latino outlets still depend on print in California, where the number of printing facilities is declining. Even the Los Angeles Times closed its Olympic plant in downtown L.A. and outsourced its printing to Media News Group.

Funds for innovation. Next Gen News, a report released by Financial Times Strategies and Northwestern Medill’s Knight Lab and supported by the Google News Initiative, interviewed 45 news consumers between the ages of 18 and 25 in the U.S., Nigeria, and India to identify the needs and preferences of the next generation. “We found an existing and growing gap between the news experience the next generation wants and what they’re currently being provided with,” the authors write. These young people use many different digital affordances (social media, chat, texting, word of mouth), filter information through their trusted networks, make sense of it through conversation with others, and exhibit sophisticated skills to search for what they need to know. They want trusted sources and personal relevance delivered according to their desires.

This is to say that the forms of news we know now — whether articles on web pages or stories on broadcast — are proving inadequate to satisfy the next generation. It is also to say that considerable development, experimentation, and investment is needed to devise new ways to gather news collaboratively with communities, to help citizens discern authority and reliability, and to provide relevance and service to people and communities. Valuing only links on web pages, as CJPA does, is already as outmoded as valuing only ink on paper.

Then there is the eternal question: how to make money and support journalism? I directed a Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, exploring business models for news: membership, patronage, commerce, events, education, new advertising models, and more. There is no easy answer. Much work remains to be done to try and fail, succeed and learn. Stopgap measures do little to build a more sustainable future for journalism. That requires investment. Imagine a capital fund established by the state, or contributed to alongside the philanthropic models explored above, to provide investment, interest-free loans, and grants to strengthen the strategic growth and sustainability of for-profit and not-for-profit news.

Technology sharing and development. On the one hand, the technological work needed to start and run a news site has become simpler and less expensive. Automattic’s Newspack, subsidized by Google, provides WordPress software and a suite of tools — e.g., Broadstreet Ads, Parse.ly analytics, News Revenue Hub contributions — for a few thousand dollars a month. The Tiny News Collective offers a starter kit of technology and training for less: $50 to $100 a month. Technology is no longer a barrier to any journalist wanting to serve a community’s news needs with a web site, newsletters, social media, and video, gaining support via advertising (from Google to Broadstreet), patronage (see San Francisco’s Patreon and San Diego’s News Revenue Hub), subscription (see Ghost), and revenue sharing (see YouTube, Medium).

On the other hand, with the advent of generative artificial intelligence, there are myriad new uses for technology in journalism. Because generative AI has no sense of meaning or fact, it should not be used to write articles unsupervised. But AI has many other uses. It can help reporters organize and query large amounts of information: transcripts, documents, data. It could transcribe hundreds of citizens’ recordings of town and school board meetings to find trends. It can make local government information and data more useful. It can offer agents to alert users when news on certain topics arrives or a nearby house comes up for sale. It can help personalize news and make it more relevant to individuals and communities. It can help create and target higher value advertising. It can provide a new window onto archives of news. Now that the machine can converse in human language, one need not learn coding to make fuller use of technology. But to develop uses such as these still requires time, experimentation, and help.

More — not less — collaboration with technology companies. This is not the time to abandon collaboration between journalism and technology. After its experiences in Australia and Canada, Meta has left news behind, killing its news tab, ending deals with publishers, including those negotiated in Australia, and making no new products or applications for news.

Google is still collaborating with journalists, creating technology specific to journalism, training journalists in skills from data to product development through its Google News Lab, convening journalists, and contributing directly to news enterprises through its Google News Initiative and News Showcase. However, if Google is forced to pay news outlets under CJPA or JCPA, many assume it will cease its voluntary services and payments, cutting off an important avenue for innovation in news when it is most needed, when artificial intelligence offers so many new opportunities and challenges to the news industry.

Should not California — as headquarters state for the internet — encourage and support greater collaboration among journalists and technologists, helping with the use of AI, with developing alternative revenue streams, and with more effective reporting? California should show the way to greater and smarter use of technology, not greater hostility toward it.

Education’s role. Schools, libraries, community colleges, and universities should, like public media, take a greater leadership role in helping shape and improve the information ecosystems of communities. They need support to do that. The California Local News Fellowship at UC-Berkeley, funded with $25 million by the state, is one attempt. The program places up to 40 young journalists in newsrooms for full-time reporting jobs. Note, sadly, that the L.A. Times just laid off almost triple that number.

Universities can train more journalists to work in new news enterprises — and help them become responsible business stewards — but scholarship money is needed, as young journalists will have difficulty paying off loans on reporters’ salaries.

Universities can become incubators for innovation in news. One example: USC’s journalism and engineering schools developed Crosstown, a platform that enables journalists to analyze data across cities or states and turn that into highly targeted local newsletters about what is happening in hundreds of neighborhoods around city services, crime, and so on.

Schools and libraries can become gathering points for community dialog and information. They and universities can also train neighbors to help report on their communities. See Documenters, a project of Chicago’s City Bureau, which trains and pays residents to put every public meeting on the record. Fresno has a Documenters outpost. Imagine news-gathering outposts in more cities and counties to augment local reporting through some of the ideas presented above: Innocode’s town app or AI analysis of meeting transcripts. Imagine classes of high school and community college students joining such efforts, learning about civic involvement. Every small news startup and ethnic outlet is in need of training in journalism, technology, revenue, and finance. Schools, working with support networks, could help them. These activities require support.

Reparative journalism. In weighing whether to support news as it was against news as it could be, perhaps the most important factor to consider is not only which communities are underserved and underrepresented but how these communities have been damaged by existing media, and what needs to be done in reparation. Newspapers including the Los Angeles Times have apologized for their history of racism. That is a necessary first step. But what then? The collaborative essay “Media 2070” asks, “What would it look like if media policies ensured that Black communities had equitable ownership and control of our own local and national media outlets and over our own online media platforms?” As Sara Lomax-Reese, CEO of Philadelphia’s Black-owned WURD radio, said, “If there is not a wholesale investment in reviving and supporting and providing resources to Black media — and I am not talking about Black-oriented media, I am talking about Black-owned media — it will go away.

Today, legacy, white-run, corporate news media cry crisis. But as Joseph Torres and Collette Watson ask in another paper, “When hasn’t journalism been in crisis for Black people?” Diversity in “mainstream” newsrooms has been chronically deficient. Only 303 of 2,500 news outlets could be persuaded to report their diversity statistics. The FCC has a history of depriving underrepresented groups from owning broadcast licenses. And philanthropic attention is late and spare. A 2019 report for the Democracy Fund found that only 8.1% of the $1.1 billion foundations spent on journalism between 2013 and 2019 went to news designed to serve racial and ethnic groups, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ communities.

There are impressive exemplars of innovation in journalism-as-service from ethnic-media outlets such as El Tímpano, founded in Oakland by Madeleine Bair to serve Spanish-speaking and Mayan diasporas via SMS. Hear Dana Amihere, founder of AfroLA, as she works 55 hours a week as “bookkeeper, web producer, data visualist, editor, social media manager, internship coordinator, and reporter,” while freelancing and teaching, applying for grants, and scraping by on $15,000 revenue. Since she does not earn $100,000, she would not qualify for funds from CJPA. Says NNPA’s Benjamin Chavis, “This legislation would only further reinforce racial exclusion trends, rather than actually help smaller local publications like those in NNPA.” Legislation that does not intentionally address inequities in California news media should be rejected.

Accountability. None of these ideas should be implemented without plans for accountability, measuring success and failure against goals that come from listening and research on the information needs of California’s communities. That is a glaring question left unanswered in CJPA: What would the money accomplish? How would California’s news and information ecosystem benefit? Against what standards and goals?

In summary, one might imagine an amalgam of many of these ideas to provide private, reader, government, and mutual support to a growing news ecosystem in California:

  • Fundraising: Regional or statewide chapters of Press Forward as a mechanism to raise funds from local and national philanthropic sources as well as soliciting voluntary contributions from a wide range of California corporations and individuals.
  • Grant-making: A version of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium as a means to solicit and judge grant proposals, deciding on their merit, and distributing private and possibly public funds to support operations of news outlets and their initiatives and to invest in growth in the ecosystem.
  • Support: A state-wide or regional news commons modeled on that at Montclair State University to provide training, networking, mentoring, and sharing of best practices and to initiate and manage collaborative reporting projects.
  • Quality news sharing: An expansion of the KQED network to identify, share, and bring attention to quality journalism wherever it is produced in the state.
  • Revenue growth: Advertising networks to sell to commercial marketers and to distribute state and local public-notice advertising. Add programs to encourage and manage membership revenue by local news outlets, with challenge grants.
  • Services: Provide connections to services from other networks, including NewsPack’s content management system, the Tiny News Collective’s technology starter kits, LION Publishers’ training, the News Revenue Hub’s services for revenue from the public, and where appropriate, the Institute for Nonprofit News.

Such infrastructure — possibly housed with universities or public media — could support ongoing research into the news needs of communities and into the effectiveness of news outlets and provide accountability for the use of funds granted to them. It could enable collaboration and experiments with new business models and new forms for news.

Read the full paper here.

Jeff Jarvis has been the Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism (Emeritus as of August 2024). He is now an adviser to Montclair State University and its Center for Cooperative Media.

Vintage postcard of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge photo by Thomas Hawk being used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. I speculated on the role of such regional hubs in my book, Geeks Bearing Gifts↩︎
POSTED     April 10, 2024, 6:39 a.m.
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