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California lawmakers want $50 million to prop up local news

A proposed board appointed by lawmakers and the governor would divvy out millions in grant funding to newspapers seeking to step up their local coverage.

SACRAMENTO, Calif (CN) — Looking to cure “news deserts” through a $50 million infusion, a group of California lawmakers want to boost struggling local newspapers with a new taxpayer-funded grant program.

Devastated by declining advertising revenues and media conglomeration, local newsrooms have struggled to keep afloat in recent decades. While the survivors have subsisted largely by limiting print versions or cutting staff, vast numbers of newspapers have folded completely.

According to a project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, over 1,800 newspapers have shut down since 2004, with California losing the most dailies of any state. The losses have created so-called news deserts mostly in smaller, rural towns.

For example, in 2018 the 140-year-old Gridley Herald abruptly closed its doors, leaving the California farming town 60 miles from Sacramento without a single news outlet. The farewell edition covered a rare recent homicide, the start of the high school football season and the Butte County fair.

“I’m especially saddened for the work we will not be able to do for you, the events we won’t be covering," noted the publisher, who had worked for the paper for 26 years.

The Hussman School of Journalism and Media project identified two California counties without a single newspaper and 12 with just one. Counties with the most comprehensive news coverage include Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara and San Bernardino.

In an effort to fill the Golden State’s news vacuums, a group of Democratic lawmakers want the state to step in with a pilot grant program that will specifically fund independent journalists and local news organizations.

“A vibrant local press that informs the public and acts as a government watchdog has been vital to the survival of American democracy,” said state Senator Steve Glazer in a statement. “This bill will offer news organizations and individuals the tools to revive the oversight function of the local press.”

Under newly introduced Senate Bill 911, an 11-member board appointed by the Legislature and governor would oversee the California Board for the Funding of Public Interest Media. The new board would be include at least one member from an ethnic media publication, a nonprofit media group, a journalism professor, an online news service, a public interest group focused on open government and three members of the general public.

Only “bona fide media organizations” committed to “increasing coverage of public affairs appropriate to communities they cover and sharing their content in the public domain for other media to use” will qualify for the grant funding.

Much of the specifics touted by Glazer’s office are not included in the initial version of SB 911 made available Thursday, but his office says the criteria will be crafted into the bill going forward.

No groups have officially signed on in support this early in the legislative process, but Glazer has courted fellow Democratic state Senators Josh Newman and Ben Allen to promote SB 911.

“Quality journalism tells the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or where it leads. A strong and independent free press is essential for a thriving and healthy democracy,” said Allen, D-Santa Monica. “America ignores the erosion of public journalism at its own peril.”

The senators say the bill is modeled after the California Arts Council and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“It’s my firm belief that there is no substitute for the kind of strong local journalism which informs and engages the public, improves the decision-making and accountability of local and state government, and serves as a primary source of information for our communities,” added Newman, D-Fullerton.

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