Can public funding for local news increase trust in media?
Experiments aim to increase public oversight and community participation in local news
In August a Poynter Media Trust Survey found that 76 percent of respondents have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in their local TV news, and 73 percent have confidence in their local newspaper.
In fact, almost every study, poll, and survey shows that most people trust their local news providers at much higher rates than their national counterparts.
It makes sense that local news is more trusted than national news. In theory, local news organizations operate within the same spaces and circles as the communities they serve. People rely on them for everything from avoiding traffic, to finding local deals and sales, to learning who is running for town council. Familiarity can “have a positive impact on donation proclivity.” And the more interaction that occurs between news organizations and the people who live in that community, the more those people tend to trust the news organization, and the more likely they are to support it — financially or otherwise.
But local news is not immune to crisis, and there are still plenty of problems within the industry that have yet to be solved. Many of them involve the weakening relationships between local news outlets and the communities they intend to serve.
One approach for strengthening these relationships is to give communities and residents more control over the way local news is funded by adopting new kinds of public funding programs. For example, the Civic Information Consortium, which was established when the Civic Info Bill passed in 2018. The bill creates a state-level fund and a public non-profit organization to invest in civic information projects across New Jersey.
Of course, dumping taxpayer money into a local news outlet doesn’t guarantee an increase in trust or quality, which is why community engagement and representation were integral parts of the effort to pass the Civil Info Bill.
The bill is the result of a two-year research effort and community engagement campaign led by Free Press, which included holding dozens of forums in communities across the state in order to find out which of their needs weren’t being met. The Civic Information Consortium is a non-profit consisting of representatives from the state government, five New Jersey public universities, and industries relevant to civic and community information. The Consortium is tasked with overseeing the distribution of the funding, which will go toward supporting projects that address specific information needs, especially in low-income and under-served communities.
Far from creating “a government press corps,” as one painfully under-researched editorial in the Wall Street Journal described it, the Civic Info Bill is an opportunity increase community investment and inject public oversight into the funding process in order to meet the critical information needs of New Jersey communities.
The bill even includes clear and specific safeguards to protect against undue partisan or other influence from government, philanthropic, and other outside funders.
From Section 8a and 8b of the Civic Info Bill:
a. the grantee shall be independent from the influence of the State, a member university, and any other grantor or contributor of funds or outside source; and. . .
b. . . the grant or donation does not entitle the grantor or contributor to dictate or influence the content of any work the grantee produces or may produce.
The Civic Info Bill is unique as a state-level project established by legislation, but it is not the only example of experiments in public funding of local media.
The community information districts project is another example of this kind of local funding model. The info districts project was launched by the Community Information Cooperative with support from the Reynolds Journalism Institute. It seeks to provide a funding mechanism similar to the Civic Info Consortium, but within a smaller geographic area. Info districts use existing municipal funding mechanisms called special improvement districts to fund civic information projects at the local level.
Not all community-funded models are based on government funding. A Direct Public Offering, as in the case of Berkelyside in California, is another option. Berkeleyside created a DPO to help fund the expansion of its newsroom by bringing on readers as investors, a different relationship than the familiar donation model often used by public media.
There’s also the model used by several European newsrooms, including The Bristol Cable in the U.K., which operates as a community-owned media co-operative. “No barons or hedge-funds,” reads the Cable’s website, “we are powered by over 2,000 members who all have a say and own an equal share in their media co-operative. This means we publish stories that matter to the public not big business, uncovering wrongdoing and injustice in our city.”
These local and public funding mechanisms, when combined with community engagement practices and community-ownership models, all have one thing in common: they allow the public to play a more direct role in how local news is funded, selected, and created. These models may not be right for every situation and they might not always scale — and that’s okay.
What they could do is give people a both an invitation and a reason to take a much more active role in the local news process. They could help inspire more trust in the local news organizations that adopt them. They would also add crucial layers of additional public oversight to the way news organizations make and spend money, decisions which are currently made by an increasingly small class of billionaire media barons.
Community-based and public-service funding models are specifically designed to incentivize more open, reciprocal, and accountable relationships between local news organizations and communities — and it’s a lot easier to trust something when you get to have a say in how it’s made.
Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media. You can reach him on Twitter at @jsamditis.
Disclosure(s): Montclair State University, where I am currently employed, is one of the member universities involved in the Civic Information Consortium. I have also personally supported and testified on behalf of the Civic Info Bill on multiple occasions. I also serve (in an unpaid capacity) on the Board of Trustees for the Community Information Cooperative.