Show us the money: NYC’s innovative approach to funding local news

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo (cc) 2010 by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

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.

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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.

‘Moguls’ world tour coming to New York and Cape Ann

I’m very excited to let you know that I’ll be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the American Association of Newspaper Distributors, or AAIND, in New York at noon this coming Thursday, May 3.

On Sunday, May 6, I’ll be part of a free panel discussion called “Journalism in the Age of Fake News and Truth Telling,” to be held at 3 p.m. at the Rockport Public Library, 17 School St. The event is being sponsored by Literary Cape Ann. A book signing will follow.

A complete list of events is online here.

The fatal decision was made before the chokehold

It seems to me that we’re looking at the wrong thing in thinking about the death of Eric Garner. It wasn’t the chokehold — it was the police officers’ decision to use overwhelming force to enforce a ridiculous law that no one cares about. Once that decision was made, there was no predicting what the outcome would be.

I’m sure Officer Daniel Pantaleo didn’t mean to kill Eric Garner. But he and his fellow officers certainly meant to take him down. And for what?

And yes, it is inconceivable that Pantaleo and perhaps other officers weren’t charged with something by the grand jury for their horrendous judgment. Criminal negligence perhaps?