Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. offered a provocative idea today: a $10 billion fund to pay for non-paywalled, nonprofit local news in each of the country’s 435 congressional districts. The money, he wrote, would provide salaries for 87,000 journalists at 1,300 news organizations.
“Such a massive investment in local news isn’t going to happen next week and probably not next year, either,” he wrote. “But it is also not a pipe dream.” Well, in fact, it is a pipe dream. There is little or no chance of anything like this happening, and it probably shouldn’t.
At a time when Congress can’t seem to pass supposedly bipartisan proposals to let the news industry negotiate with Facebook and Google for a share of their advertising revenues (the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act) or to provide tax credits to subscribers, advertiser and publishers (the Local Journalism Sustainability Act), the idea that the government is going to cough up $10 billion to support local news is absurd.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to Bacon’s top-down approach. Across the country, hundreds of local and regional news startups — nonprofits, for-profits and volunteer efforts — are going about the hard work of covering their communities. We’ve seen a plethora of them debut in Eastern Massachusetts just this year since Gannett began regionalizing and closing its weekly newspapers. And a brand-new one, The Concord Bridge, is slated to launch later this week.
The grassroots, one-community-at-a-time approach to solving the local news crisis is not perfect. It can be purely a matter of luck that one town gets good coverage and another doesn’t. It’s also easier to start such projects in the affluent suburbs than it is in more diverse areas. But the movement is growing, so perhaps the best thing we can do is let it develop.
As you probably know, Ellen Clegg and I are writing a book about a few of these projects that will be called “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Last year we wrote what might be called a “pretort” to Bacon’s column in an essay for Nieman Lab. Please have a look.