DENVER (CN) – More than 30 Colorado newspapers have folded in the last two decades and about 44% of local reporters lost their jobs. It might seem easy and obvious to say newspapers are dying, but others see new opportunities on the horizon.
To maintain the integrity of local independent news in an increasingly volatile funding environment, the Colorado Media Project discussed a white paper at the University of Colorado in Denver on Monday proposing several ways local government may be able to fund the Fourth Estate.
“Things die, that’s a fact of life, but we need a mechanism to create new things and we need a way to pay for them,” said Gregory Moore, a former editor of the Denver Post and current editor in chief of Deke Digital.
The project’s number one proposal is to solicit investment from local communities who benefit from free and independent local news – research shows communities that lose such news coverage are often less engaged, more polarized, and less informed as voters. Dozens of Colorado counties have one weekly newspaper. Southeastern Baca County, population 3,562, has no local news source.
Many Coloradans trust their local news, even as skepticism of national media grows. According to a 2019 Pew poll, 81% of Denver adults rate local news favorably, though only 15% directly paid for it in the last year.
Two constitutional challenges stand in the way, one local and one national. At the state level, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights mandates all tax increases be approved by voters, and voters very rarely volunteer to pay more to the government. Nevertheless, the Colorado Media Project proposes a 2.9% extension of sales tax on digital ads targeting Coloradans that could raise $70 million for grants or small business support, while addressing the consequences of the medium change on local journalism.
The report also recommends offering tax incentives to community businesses that fund newsrooms.
What makes the proposal controversial, even heretical to the industry, are concerns that accepting government funds would make newsrooms beholden to the very entity they’re designed to police.
“I come to this with a predisposition of skepticism with the media serving as the government watchdog,” said First Amendment attorney Steven Zansberg of Ballard Spahr. “But necessity is the mother of invention. If existing revenues were sufficient, none of us would be up here, but the status quo is in a crisis.”
Many state governments already fund the National Public Radio and Public Broadcast System. If they were to fund local news, Zansberg emphasized, “The proposal requires church-and state-insulation. There have to be stringent walls between advertising and editorial choices.”
From Colorado Public Radio tapping into grants to grow its newsroom, to the Colorado Sun’s cryptocurrency experiment through community-run journalism company Civil, media companies are determined to find a more stable funding stream than dispassionate hedge fund owners, pay walls, and popup ads.
A final but not insignificant suggestion: State and local government must make data easily accessible – the default should be open, not closed. If the Colorado government makes all data available online in searchable formats it will save reporters time and organizations money.
“We shouldn’t spend so much time working with public officials to help them understand sunshine laws,” noted Melissa Davis, vice president of the Gates Family Foundation.
The report combines research gathered by more than a dozen interested parties, including the vice the Gates Family Foundation, the Colorado Press Association and the University of Colorado.