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Over the past 15 years, the United States has lost more than half the newspaper reporters covering state and local beats. Runaway media consolidation, mismanagement, new technologies and changing consumer habits have led to widespread job losses and newsroom closings. The decimation of local news has disproportionately harmed low-income communities, people of color, rural communities, and immigrants. And as news deserts expand, disinformation proliferating online has filled the void.

The news crisis is prompting lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels to examine how to use public policy to keep communities informed. But some proposals, like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act—while framed as helping journalists—do little to address the structural issues underpinning this crisis. Instead, they’re driven by corporate lobbyists focused on bailing out big commercial media and driving support to predatory hedge funds.

The most promising solutions look at how public dollars can be used to meet community-information needs, cultivate new models for journalism and address the widening gaps resulting from the destruction of local commercial media.

Most recently, California appeared poised to pass legislation that would have established a $25-million local journalism fund to better inform communities and support both local and ethnic media. The state Senate approved the bill in May—but it failed to move forward in the Assembly after the lobby representing some of the state’s largest legacy corporate media outlets mounted a campaign filled with half-truths and scare tactics.

Fortunately, legislators were able to direct that $25 million to a new publicly-funded statewide journalism fellowship based at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. While this was a welcome development, the death of the original bill in the Assembly is a stark reminder that powerful media players will do whatever it takes to protect their bottom line and market dominance—even if it harms the communities they’re supposed to serve. And it points to the need for strong grassroots organizing to counteract this kind of underhanded lobbying.

A state-level solution to the crisis in local journalism

As a new case study shows, that kind of organizing proved crucial in New Jersey, which in 2018 created the Civic Information Consortium. This independent nonprofit invests public funds in community-centered projects designed to strengthen local journalism, expand access to news and boost civic engagement. A grassroots coalition led by Free Press Action and made up of journalists, local organizers, artists, students, universities, and media-makers built public support for the idea and counteracted the opposition of New Jersey’s incumbent media.

The creation of the consortium marked the very first time a state had taken this kind of action to address the local-news crisis. The nonprofit is a joint initiative of five of the state’s leading public higher-education institutions and is governed by an independent board.

Since 2021, the consortium has invested $1.35 million in initiatives like the Newark News and Story Collaborative, which is training community members to produce news that fills local information gaps, and Cosecha, which is working with Rutgers to create a radio show serving the state’s Spanish-speaking immigrants. Thanks to the consortium’s success, New Jersey’s FY2023 budget includes $3 million in funds for the organization—an increased investment that will help the nonprofit better address the expansion of news deserts in the state.

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While there were distinctions between the public grantmaking ideas in California and New Jersey—and certainly unique political conditions—it’s clear that the grassroots effort in New Jersey made a crucial difference. Public pressure showed New Jersey lawmakers that their constituents wanted action, and it helped challenge the power of the state’s media lobby, which used both its political connections and the platform of legacy news outlets to rail against the legislation.

Early on, some New Jersey lawmakers expressed skepticism that any of their constituents would care about efforts to fund better local news. Our experience showed otherwise: that people will take action to keep their communities informed—but only if you invest in them, listen to their concerns and demonstrate solidarity.

Engaging communities first

The effort to create the consortium grew out of listening sessions that Free Press Action held in New Jersey beginning in 2015. Sandwiched between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, New Jersey receives little-to-no local coverage of its state and municipal governments. During Free Press Action’s forums, community members expressed the desire for journalism that would tell stories that matter, create positive change and address local problems like racial injustice, economic distress, and struggling schools.

Free Press Action launched the Civic Info Bill campaign by hosting events throughout New Jersey and building grassroots support for legislative action. The organization emphasized that funding should focus on fulfilling local information needs, not on saving news outlets or journalists’ jobs. That was the key message that got everyday people engaged and willing to support the initiative. Residents’ stories about how their communities had suffered from years of media consolidation and harmful coverage pushed lawmakers to take notice.

Thousands of people from around the state signed petitions, took part in community forums, called lawmakers and visited legislative district offices. Residents took part in two successful lobby days at the statehouse, and by May 2018, the bill had 20 co-sponsors—half of whom had met with constituents. The bill passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support, and was signed into law in August 2018. While funding hiccups initially delayed the consortium from providing grants, now that it’s up and running, it’s serving as a potential model for other states.

The future of local news is too important to be left to market forces, and the media conglomerates that got us into the local-news crisis aren’t going to get us out of it. Any decisions about the future of local journalism must serve the needs of diverse communities—instead of relying on the systems that have failed us.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the future of our communities—and our democracy. That’s why we need more people-powered campaigns like the one behind the Civic Info Bill. We need bold solutions to give people access to the news and information they deserve.

CommonDreams