Opinion Columns & Blogs

Should Google or your taxes pay for local news?

San Jose Mercury News newspapers for sale at a 7-Eleven in Santa Clara, California.
San Jose Mercury News newspapers for sale at a 7-Eleven in Santa Clara, California. Bloomberg News

Whose job it is to revive local journalism in California?

Our state’s elites have a clear, if dubious answer: themselves.

Last year, Google announced it was putting $300 million into supporting local news. A few weeks ago, Facebook announced its own $300 million local news initiative. Philanthropists and foundations have invested in news nonprofits, like the Voice of San Diego. And billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong is re-investing in the L.A. Times.

Local news operations have been shrinking for years, so this is mostly good news. But philanthropic grants are temporary, and tech companies abandon strategies in the flash of an electron. So the long-term solution to funding local news lies not with the rich, but with California’s local communities themselves.

And the most sustainable way to restore local media is to have local taxpayers to foot the bill.

Let me pause while you lose your mind.

I know you think this is a socialist plot, or at least a conflict of interest. But it’s not even a new idea. Other countries supported vital coverage with tax dollars, and America’s local newspapers have long been subsidized by government notices and by advertising from local businesses whose owners double as public officials.

Another reason for taxpayer-funded local media is simple politics. Local governments — and especially the people who work in them, as well as their critics — are the strongest potential supporters for any effort to revive local media.

As I travel this state of 500 cities and thousands more local governments, people complain constantly that they no longer have media that explain what local communities need. Studies show this lack of media coverage results in lower voter turnout, and more problematic local government finances.

Local coverage is as essential as any other public service that local governments provide. Local journalists hold wrongdoers accountable, as police do; respond in emergencies, like the fire department; and provide knowledge as certainly as the library does.

Since the free market won’t provide sufficient local media services, especially in small towns, it’s necessary for local governments step in and do so.

But how? Local governments should establish separate local media bureaus as nonprofit or quasi-governmental entities, with rules requiring independent decision-making, as they might do to manage a civic auditorium or pursue a special project.

The best way to fund such entities would be with a dedicated fee on all households (a media funding structure used in some countries), with a state match to boost coverage in smaller communities. Taxes would ensure accountability. When local people know they themselves are paying for the local media, they are more likely to complain if it’s not really serving them. This struggle should make the local news livelier, more grounded in community and more interesting, because it will be fought over.

That is a very different vision than the elite philanthropic and technological plans being offered for local news.

Google’s news initiative works with existing media and universities to advance technologies and new media models. In effect, the company is leading a search for innovations that advance the media business rather than meeting the needs of specific communities.

For its part, Facebook says it wants to support local journalists and newsrooms, but it is sending that money through national funds and non-profits, with the hope that the money will trickle down to the locals.

It’s also hard to trust Facebook’s word when it comes to media, given how it jerked the chains of publishers by promoting an expensive shift to video, then retreating from it. And since Google and Facebook took so much of the ad money that once supported local news, it’s hard to see them as the charitable saviors of local news they claim to be.

Philanthropic and corporate donations could still be useful if they were directed at the sort of publicly funded news operations that I’m suggesting. But, in such a system, those local journalists would not be begging for grants from philanthropic programs or rich people. Instead, the locals would have their base-funding in place from taxpayers, so they could resist donors with agendas.

The fundamental principle is this: If there is going to be a real and sustained revival of local journalism, the journalists will need to work for the locals.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that publishes original essays by journalists.

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