A bill has been submitted in the California Senate to help support a free press, and engender and protect local journalism.
While there are state laws such as the Brown Act, to protect and ensure open government, without media, such as local papers, who report on government actions at the local level, open government laws are futile.
Local newspapers, declining in number through the loss of advertising and readership, have been a victim of the internet age.
“The United States has lost almost 1,800 papers since 2004, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies. Roughly half of the remaining 7,112 in the country — 1,283 dailies and 5,829 weeklies — are located in small and rural communities.
“No state has been spared the death of a newspaper … More than 500 newspapers have been closed or merged in rural communities since 2004. Most of these counties where newspapers closed have poverty rates significantly above the national average. Because of the isolated nature of these communities, there is little to fill the void when the paper closes,” according to the report “The Expanding News Desert,” led by Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair of Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, School of Journalism and Media (www.usnewsdeserts.com/reports/expanding-news-desert/loss-of-local-news/loss-newspapers-readers).
Three weeks ago, Democratic state senators Steve Glazer (Contra Costa), Ben Allen (Santa Monica) and Josh Newman (Fullerton) introduced a bill to address this growing problem.
The bill creates the California Board to Fund Public Interest Media composed of 11 members. The governor would appoint nine members and the Assembly and Senate would appoint one each.
Directions to the governor include “… when making appointments, shall give consideration to the various geographic parts of the state that have suffered from a decline in media coverage of local public and civic affairs.”
This bill is modeled after the California Arts Council and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, two models for public funding of independent arts and media.
With state funding, federal money or grants, the board would “… encourage independent, local public service news coverage, help independent local news organizations or individual reporters to cover the cost of reporting local public affairs, and award prizes or direct grants to individuals or organizations,” according to the bill’s legislative digest.
Funds would be awarded as grants. Their primary purpose would be to serve as an incentive to broaden the coverage of public affairs, and to identify and provide details about actions affecting the community or state. Not only would coverage of local governmental actions continue or expand, but their content would be shared with other media to use.
The board, which would make the grants, would be prohibited from imposing any editorial judgment or oversight over the organizations or individuals who receive a grant.
While not in the language of SB 911, the bill’s authors anticipate initial funding of $50 million to be used over a five-year period.
“A vibrant local press that informs the public and acts as a government watchdog has been vital to the survival of American democracy,” Sen. Glazer said in the press release announcing the bill’s introduction. “But over the past couple decades, the closure of many local newspapers and the decline of most others has created vast ‘news deserts’ where virtually no local coverage remains. This bill will offer news organizations and individuals the tools to revive the oversight function of the local press.”
The bill will be considered first by the Senate Governmental Organization Committee March 15. One member of the committee is Sen. Melissa Melendez, who represents the 28th District that includes all of the Hill.
“We are still looking into the bill, “wrote Ellia Rosado, communications director for Melendez, in an email to the Town Crier when asked for a comment from Melendez.
Since the committee has not scheduled a hearing on the bill, Assemblyman Randy Voepel’s office was reluctant to comment on its specifics. Once the Senate acts and the Assembly has a specific bill to consider, Voepel’s staff will review and comment on it.
“Quality journalism tells the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or where it leads. A strong and independent free press is essential for a thriving and healthy democracy,” Sen. Allen said in the press release. “America ignores the erosion of public journalism at its own peril.”