Colorado’s Democratic U.S. senator, Michael Bennet, this week introduced legislation that, if passed, would examine ways in which the federal government might try to help fix our country’s bottomed-out local news business model.
By now, readers of this newsletter should not need a disaster reel refresher about why some might believe such help is necessary.
The Future of Local News Commission Act would create a federal panel of 13 people who have “relevant experience—in print, digital, and broadcast news, as well as the business, civil society, and research communities—from diverse regions of the country,” according to a summary provided by Bennet’s office. To serve on the panel, the lawmakers are looking for, among others, a “digital-native or digital-first news editor,” a “nonprofit news outlet journalist or editor,” and a local county editor or journalist who works for an outlet “with circulation or readership of not more than 75,000.”
So what would these commission members do? Among other duties, the bill says they would:
“Examine the state of local news and the ability of local news to sustain democracy by meeting the critical information needs of the people of the United States.”
“Examine potential new mechanisms for public funding for the production of local news to meet the critical information needs of the people of the United States and address systemic inequities in media coverage and representation throughout the country.”
“Provide recommendations on mechanisms that the Federal Government can create and effectively implement to support production of professional, independent, and high-quality local news to meet the needs of the public.”
Recommendations, “in addition to any other proposals deemed appropriate, may explore the possible creation of a new national endowment for local journalism, or the reform and expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or another appropriate institution, to make public funds a part of a multi-faceted approach to sustaining local news.”
More than a dozen top journalism advocacy groups signed on in support of the legislation before news of it became widely public, including PEN America and the Society of Professional Journalists. Locally, the Colorado Media Project signed on in support, according to Bennet’s office.
To read the bill is to take a ride across the rubble of our nation’s local news landscape. Its authors note how rural areas have been hit particularly hard, and they explain the damage that disappearing local news does to democracy while citing various studies this newsletter has chronicled over the years. PEN’s Losing the News report gets a mention, as does the important work of Penny Abernathy at the University of North Carolina.
Early in the text of the bill, its authors quote Thomas Jefferson saying, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.’’ (The legislation doesn’t mention some perhaps lesser-known quotes of his that are more in line with what we’ve been hearing from our current president. Jefferson had a complicated relationship with the newspapers of his time.)
Lead sponsors of the bill are Bennet of Colorado, and Democratic U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
“Local news is foundational to our democracy, but a convergence of forces – from consolidation to social media to COVID-19 – has pushed news rooms across America to the brink,” Bennet said in a statement. He added that he worries deeply about “an America without local reporters on the beat to hold officials accountable” and who engage citizens in the events shaping their communities. “My hope,” he said, “is that this commission will — in a nonpartisan, sober, and thoughtful manner — come forward with recommendations to help reinvigorate local journalism across the country while preserving the independence vital to a free and robust press.”
Bennet, who ran for president in the Democratic primary this cycle, has some high-level familial and career connections to people in the news business. His father ran NPR in the 1980s, and his brother James was editor of The Atlantic magazine and then ran the editorial page of The New York Times where he recently tumbled out of power. Michael Bennet also worked as managing director for the private equity division of conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, who owns Clarity Media. That company’s media properties include The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado Politics, The Washington Examiner magazine, and the newly launched Denver Gazette.
In the past year, Colorado has become a place where public conversations about the efficacy of government support for the local news industry have been happening more than elsewhere. Despite Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis throwing cold water on the idea of increased state-government support, this year, his office’s economic development agency offered for the first time ever an Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant to a local news publisher. Meanwhile, as their revenues cratered amid the pandemic, local news outlets large and small across Colorado applied for and received federal relief dollars through programs of the Small Business Administration.
While there are plenty of examples throughout U.S. history of government helping subsidize journalism in various ways, journalists are expected to remain independent of government and act as a check on official power. It is not uncommon to hear people in the journalism industry push back against calls for more public-sector support out of concern of undue influence.
Here’s a line giving voice to that in the new federal bill:
According to the Native American Journalists Association, Tribal news outlets are often dependent on Tribal governments for funding, but most Tribal news outlets lack the policy structure necessary to fully protect journalistic independence. As a result, freedoms of speech and press among Tribal nations are inconsistent, as Tribal media journalists report experiencing punitive budgetary restrictions, censorship, required prior approval of content, and workplace harassment in pursuit of Tribal reporting.
One of the tasks of this new commission, should it come into existence, would be to “consider issues of transparency and other guardrails, such as editorial independence from government actors and a distinct, independent legal and financial structure for the funding institution, which must be addressed if public funding is viewed in principle as one path forward to support production of local news.”
Watch this space for how the new bill shapes up in Congress.
Appreciate the careful, thoughtful approach to this issue. Journalists don’t want to be beholden to the same gov’t we must hold to account – yet we can’t ignore that gov’t that incentivizes so many industries might have a role in buttressing the free press in underserved areas. https://t.co/BpsYfwFWVv
— Kyle Clark (@KyleClark) September 25, 2020
Speaking of federal bills, the Grand Junction paper lauded some different national legislation
Did you know there’s already a bill in Congress that, if passed, could give you a tax break of up to $250 for your local news subscriptions? The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reminded its readers this week about The Local Newspaper Sustainability Act, federal legislation proposed in July that also would offer tax relief for those who employ local journalists as well as some small businesses that advertise in local outlets.
Currently, the bipartisan bill, which brings together a strange-bedfellows coalition including Texas Republican Louie Gohmert and California Democrat Eric Swalwell, lists zero members of Colorado’s congressional delegation as co-sponsors. The Sentinel wants to change that. The newspaper’s editorial board said it hopes Colorado’s “entire delegation joins in support.”
More from the editorial:
During the pandemic, business closures and slowdowns have worsened the problem, even while readership of professional journalism has surged. And the need for such journalism — which has to play a watchdog role on the government — has never been greater. All of these things are true and relevant here at The Sentinel. The congressional act would, of course, benefit you as a subscriber, and would benefit us as journalists, and the owners and managers of the company.
The editorial also says “the chance that Congress will actually pass this act before the November elections seems remote, but we think the concept is valid, and perhaps there’s a real chance early next year.” So there’s that.
What about a nonprofit ‘replanting fund’?
Report for America President Steven Waldman has some ideas. He’s behind the initiative that includes a reporter in Colorado and became a finalist for a MacArthur “genius” grant. This week he’s out with a manifesto about how to save newspapers “squeezed by hedge funds.” (Colorado is no stranger to this problem.)
From the strategy document:
The conversation about the crisis in local news has tended to focus on two solutions: helping create local news startups and supporting local newspapers still in existence. Each approach has limitations and promise. Birthing nonprofit news organizations is critically important and valuable, but so far there are far too few (around 300), and their scale is small. Congress, on the other hand, has so far focused on helping existing newspapers as they often are the only source of information in a community. But as a long-term strategy that is misguided.
These newspapers suffer not only from broken business models but from ownership structures that make it nearly impossible for them to endure or serve their communities well. More than 1,000 newspapers today are owned by hedge funds or private equity firms, accounting for more than half of the daily newspaper circulation in the country. They cannot and will not guide newspapers to a better future. And the problems are about to get worse: The economic decline caused by COVID-19 will accelerate local newspaper bankruptcies and consolidation. This next tidal wave will swamp not only papers owned by private equity funds but also well-intentioned family-owned chains.
It’s time to ask another question: Could some of the 6,700 privately owned newspapers be transformed into more community-grounded institutions? Just as sickly plants can sometimes gain new life by being watered and repotted in healthier soil, could changing their ownership structures and sources of nourishment revive some dying newspapers?
Ski mountain owner swoops in to save a historic Colorado newspaper
In a twist on succession-planning for small local newspaper publishers in Colorado, a historical society is turning over a newspaper to a local owner. Or, I should say, a group of local owners. And maybe this is burying the lede by now, but one of them happens to own a local ski mountain.
From The Durango Herald:
A group of locals, led by Aaron Brill, co-owner of Silverton Mountain ski area, has purchased the Silverton Standard & the Miner from the San Juan County Historical Society in an effort to keep what is the oldest continuously published newspaper on the Western Slope in operation.
“Basically, the Silverton Standard was on its way out. It is a difficult time to maintain a newspaper, and so there was a worry it was on the verge of not continuing,” Brill said.
Taking over as editor will be local teacher Megan Davenport. The Herald reported: “Silverton Mountain will have no relationship with the Standard, and Davenport will have sole control of all editorial decisions, Brill said.”
Let’s hope that remains the case. Newspapers owned by local resort-and-attraction owners have been known to publish embarrassing puff pieces about their properties. Are local historical societies better owners? They might not know journalism so well and as they fundraise from the community and the society crowd, they could potentially find themselves allergic to some of the messier parts of the newspaper business, particularly when it comes to accountability reporting.
This isn’t the first local group in recent years to pull together and take over a small community newspaper. In 2018, a group of locals bought The Trinidad Chronicle-News from a Louisiana company that owned it for the past 75 years.
Succession planning for some of our state’s smaller newspapers is something Colorado’s journalism advocates are going to have to think about. Consider this statistic from a Colorado Media Project research paper published last year: “At least 44 Colorado newspapers have owners who are approaching retirement age and may be or will be looking to sell their papers and exit the business, according to a Colorado Press Association estimate.”
As for the ski mountain owner on the Western Slope, he told The Durango Herald about the 145-year-old Silverton Standard and the Miner: “We wanted to make sure the newspaper continues. We feel that Silverton and San Juan County are in need of a community-based, local news outlet and so we basically stepped in to see if we can help to continue to run the newspaper because it appeared as if it might be going out of business.”
Steamboat paper, acknowledging white privilege, embarks on six-week DEI series
This year, multiple newsrooms in Colorado said publicly they will work to combat racism in the wake of the police killing of another unarmed Black man in America and the waves of protests George Floyd’s death and others sparked in an already turbulent 2020.
At Colorado Public Radio, “deep introspection” is taking place in the newsroom about race and racism. Journalism support networks here have facilitated “Real Talk” sessions about race and diversity in Colorado newsrooms, and Free Press has launched an initiative in Colorado to “work alongside communities underserved by local media to help strengthen and re-imagine local news.”
And now, out on the Western Slope, the print newspaper in Steamboat Springs is embarking on a six-week series called “Indivisible” focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in Routt County. On Tuesday, editor Lisa Schlichtman published a self-reflective first-person column introducing this important reporting project. Typically someone who is not at a loss for expressing herself — through speech, keystrokes, or printing ink — the editor found herself this year at a loss for words “and overwhelmed by feelings of ignorance, guilt and terrible sadness.”
From her piece:
And so, at the age of 55, I looked in the mirror and acknowledged my white privilege. I shut my mouth, put down my pen and began to listen and learn. I read books like “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin Diangelo. I listened to podcast after podcast featuring intelligent disrupters and thought leaders of color — people like Austin Channing Brown and Ibram X. Kendi. And I began following Layla Saad, Ijeoma Oluo and the hashtag #meandwhitesupremacy on Instagram.
I opened my mind to new ideas and concepts, some of which made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I came to the conclusion that I will never fully understand what it is like to be a person of color in the U.S., but that does not absolve me from the responsibility to fight against social injustice. And for me, the journey started with self-awareness and education.
Ultimately, she came to the conclusion that she “can best contribute to the cause of anti-racism through my work as a journalist and editor.” She challenged readers of the Swift Communications-owned newspaper to become part of the conversation and not to close themselves off from it, and she acknowledged the lack of diversity in her own newsroom.
“This also isn’t a topic that can be covered in just six weeks, and the Pilot & Today news team is committed to reporting on issues of diversity, equity and inclusivity beyond the conclusion of the series,” the editor wrote.
More Colorado local media odds & ends
Front-page apology in The Denver Post today about a photo placement: pic.twitter.com/vvPoL0ouWU
— Corey Hutchins (@CoreyHutchins) September 25, 2020
👋Tina Griego offered a tribute to journalist and educator Burt Hubbard whose humility “has allowed others to shine” as he leaves the state. (She also talks up a perk of her new job at COLab.)
🗳️Learn why one Colorado journalist’s vote wasn’t counted in 2016 so you don’t repeat his mistake.
💡Here are some ideas about how to make your reporting more diverse.
⛰️Check out the first cover of the new Mountain Gazette.
🚗A writer critiqued Denver TV protest coverage for the city’s alt-weekly Westword. (He points out automobiles aren’t autonomous when driven by people; later, media criticism of local news repeated the car autonomy construction.)
📢The Associated Press is explaining the election.
🚨Westword reports “Colorado law enforcement has recently inspired a bonanza of lawsuits involving plaintiffs who say they were arrested for using the word ‘fuck.'”
💰Did you know “millionaires are investing in new and existing newspapers”?
🙄Now here’s a message from a Colorado advocacy group sure to not piss off local newspaper journalists.
⚔️A new Gallup/Knight poll found “Americans widely agree that the news media is under attack politically, with four in five Americans (80%) supporting this statement” and (drum roll): “They disagree by party, however, on whether those attacks are justified.”
*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.