One of the more vexing dilemmas in thinking about ways that the government can help ease the local news crisis is how to maintain independence between the dog and the watchdog.
It’s not easy. Nonprofit status brings with it tax advantages that amount to an indirect benefit. Steven Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America, has proposed a $250 refundable tax credit to pay for local news subscriptions or to donate to nonprofit media outlets. Such approaches, though useful, fall far short of what’s needed.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has come through with something much more direct and substantial: a vast increase in what the city spends on advertising in community newspapers and websites. As a result of his executive order in May 2019, city agencies must devote 50% of their print and digital ad budgets to such outlets. According to a study of the initiative by CUNY’s Newmark School of Journalism:
In its first year of implementation, the executive order far outperformed its own expectations, delivering 84 percent of the budget, nearly $10 million, to more than 220 outlets serving New Yorkers in every neighborhood in all five boroughs in 36 languages besides English.
Keep in mind that Facebook recently announced that it would set aside just $5 million to help local news organizations across the entire country — only if they would agree to set up shop on Facebook, of course.
In a commentary for The New York Times, Newmark Dean Sarah Bartlett and Julie Sandorf, Charles H. Revson Foundation, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, wrote that de Blasio’s program has had a dramatic effect. For instance, Brooklyn’s Haitian Times, which nearly went out of business in 2013, received $73,489 in advertising revenues from the city and was able to continue covering its community during the COVID pandemic. Bartlett and Sandorf add:
The federal government has an advertising budget of $5 billion, so a program like New York City’s could provide an enormous boost to community news organizations at a time when local journalism around the country is in crisis.
A program such as New York’s doesn’t provide the true firewall that would be needed to ensure that news organizations aren’t slanting their coverage in order to keep the money rolling in. City officials could cut back or eliminate spending on media outlets whose coverage has offended them. Community groups that are insulated from politics could be charged with making the spending decisions, but those have their own biases.
Still, give de Blasio credit for finding a way to help local news organizations at a time when viable solutions are few and far between.