The role of government, Report for America in rebuilding local news

Report for America was created to help save local news. It was launched long before COVID-19, yet the signs of local journalism’s collapse were quite evident even in 2014. The pandemic has accelerated the decline and created an imminent crisis.

Even before COVID-19, local newspapers had lost more than half their jobs since 2008—about the same scale as the contraction of the coal and steel industries. In the last two months, 36,000 newsroom workers were laid off, furloughed or had their pay cut.

We believe that our model—a national service program that gets reporters on the ground—is one of the most important strategies. But it’s certainly not the only one. And as the disease began pushing more and more local news organizations to the edge, or over, we felt we needed to help fashion some broader solutions.

I was flattered to be drafted to lead a pop-up coalition of locally-owned and nonprofit news organizations to address a big question: what role should the federal government play in helping local news? The group, called Rebuild Local News, crafted a letter to Congress laying out our philosophy and some specific government policies that could help local news—especially local news organizations that are truly grounded in the community—without threatening the First Amendment. We suggest:

  • Having federal government advertising go through local media
  • Changing tax policy to incentivize investment in journalism and helping nonprofit journalism to grow
  • Have the government encourage the replanting of newspapers that are currently owned by hedge funds back into the community
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Here’s a simple website where you can read the letter and see the other organizations that are supporting the cause, which includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, National Newspaper Association, America’s Newspapers, the American Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Association of Hispanic Publishers, the American Journalism Project, Chalkbeat, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Solutions Journalism Network and the GroundTruth Project, home of Report for America.

To help make the case, and sharpen the thinking, we’ve also done a few articles spelling out the particular proposals. Here are deep dives on government advertising, a government fund for nonprofit news, and the replanting strategy. Some of these ideas grew out of my earlier work at the Federal Communications Commission, where I authored a report called “Information Needs of Community,” which included explorations of the role that government policy can play in shaping how local news develops.

If you agree with the letter, please contact your Senator to let them know!