Earlier this year, California Sen. Steve Glazer introduced Senate Bill 911 (SB911), which would create the California Board to Fund Public Interest Media.
It would allocate $25 million in funding to support local news media outlets over the next five years.
Why is it important to support local news?
Since 2005, 2,500 print-news operations — a quarter of all newspapers in the United States — have been shuttered. In California, the total newspaper circulation has dropped by more than 50 percent.
Many of these small local newspapers and online media outlets report on school boards, city councils and community challenges in diverse communities that would go ignored if there weren’t journalists holding civic and community leaders accountable. This is especially important as disinformation and fake news, such as conspiracy theories, are spreading rapidly online and on social media.
The American Medical Association has described this as an infodemic and has a strategy to address it.
In spite of the shrinking of media and increase of misinformation, there are new independent, ethnic and online media outlets filling the local news and information gap.
In California, this includes such innovative efforts as El Tímpano, (serving the Bay Area’s Spanish-speaking, immigrant population), the Voice of San Diego (the city’s first digital non-profit outlet) and India Currents (reporting for Silicon Valley’s South Asian communities).
At CALÓ News, a groundbreaking news initiative of the Latino Media Collaborative, we strive to provide interesting, insightful and in-depth reporting focused on Latinos/as/x communities in Southern California. Our content is meant to engage our communities and empower them with information that will make their lives better. Our communities are filled with success stories. But those stories and issues are often neglected by mainstream media.
The bill technically passed the Assembly’s Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review on June 30, but is still subject to final negotiations within the committee before receiving a “greenlight” for consideration by the Appropriations Committee.
The founder of CALÓ News and head of the Latino Media Collaborative, Arturo Carmona, spoke at the state assembly in favor of the proposed legislation.
“We believe that this legislation represents an unprecedented opportunity for the state to set on a course that can establish a more level playing field for Latino and local media in rural, coastal, and urban regions to be able to compete for state media resources that currently are unreachable,” Carmona said. “The bill will help ensure that state resources actually reach the local Latino news organizations in dire need for these resources. And of course, these amendments help provide a firewall to protect journalistic freedom and independence.”
To be clear, these state funds would not mean that state or local politicians would have undue influence on independent media.
There is an established track record of providing public funds for activities protected by the First Amendment. Capitol Public Radio, one of the most respected news entities covering government in California, receives government funding with no effect on the content and tone of its editorial product. The state’s Public Radio Network received state funding until it was eliminated by then-Gov. George Deukmejian in 1983.
Professors in our public universities, whose salaries are paid by the state government, often criticize the state’s policies and leaders, exercising their free speech and also by writing opinions in news media outlets.
The last time that California stepped in to invest in media to ensure that the public has access to information was 1975.
If this bill passes, we recommend the establishment of a non-profit 501(c)(3) entity to distribute funds and that is insulated from undue political interference.
Free Press Action helped establish a similar funding mechanism in New Jersey, providing a model that could work in California as well.
A diverse board of respected media and community leaders should be appointed and would direct funds to places that need it most, ethnic media and hyper local media serving markets that are most vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation and also are the most underserved and understaffed.
In California alone, there are more than 300 ethnic media outlets serving at least 38 different ethnic, racial, and cultural communities in 36 languages, according to a report commissioned by the Latino Media Collaborative.
Of the ethnic media outlets surveyed, 73% are locally and independently owned and 65% of the outlets have fewer than 5 full-time staff, while 22% have only one full-time staff.
This funding should not be targeted at legacy or mainstream media. It should be used to support independent media, nonprofit and ethnic media. If we have string-free funding for independent, nonprofit and ethnic media we will strengthen our democracy.