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Democrats propose ways of bolstering local news

by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
February 5, 2024

Amid reports of layoffs in the journalism industry and ongoing concerns about newsroom closures and consolidations, Wisconsin Democrats are proposing some ways of boosting the local journalism industry. 

A package of bills — coauthored by Reps. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg), Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) and Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) — would create a tax credit for people who subscribe to local newspapers, a fellowship program to get individuals into the field and a Civic Information Consortium Board that would award grants to local news.

“Local journalism is essential to our democracy. It keeps voters informed and engaged on the issues that matter most to their communities, and local reporters also play an important role in keeping officials accountable to their constituents,” Anderson said at a press conference about the package last week. “But local news is dying.” 

Wisconsin has one county without a news source, and 22 counties with only one, according to the State of Local News 2023, a report by Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative. The report also states that residents in more than half of U.S. counties have no, or very limited, access to a reliable local news source, and the number of local news outlets contracted at an even steeper rate in 2023 compared with previous years.

“News deserts are disproportionately located in rural areas, low-income areas and located in communities of color,” Anderson said. “The three bills in his package are designed to ensure that all Wisconsinites can access high quality, reliable local journalism that connects them to the communities and supports a civic engagement in Wisconsin.”

The journalism fellowship program would be administered by the University of Wisconsin System. Under the program, a panel of UW journalism professors and industry experts would choose 25 fellows to match to participating newsrooms for a one-year fellowship. 

Participants, who would be required to hold a two- or four-year degree in journalism, media, communications or a similar program, would receive a $40,000 salary.

Another bill would create a nonrefundable tax credit as a way of encouraging people to subscribe to their local newspaper. When subscribing to a qualifying local newspaper, taxpayers could receive a tax credit equal to 50% of the amount paid to subscribe. The credit would be limited to a maximum of $250 in each taxable year.

Alex Frandsen, the journalism program manager for Free Press Action, said that newsroom closures, layoffs and the poor economic outlook for journalism affects more than just journalists. 

“The less that we know about our neighbors, the less we know about our lawmakers, the less we know about our communities, the more disconnected and disempowered we become,” Frandsen said. “Access to civic news and information surely is a pillar of our democracy and really, a cornerstone of our ability to empathize with one another and create change collectively. Unfortunately, it’s become clear that this pillar is just too much weight for the market to bear on its own. We desperately need policies that can start a new path forward and that’s what makes that thing here today.” 

The last proposal would look to boost journalism by creating a Civic Information Consortium Board, which would work to distribute grants to local news and media projects with the purpose of bolstering media literacy, civic engagement and supporting access to local journalism, especially in underserved communities.

The board would attached to the University of Wisconsin System and made up of two members appointed by the governor, four legislators, representatives of UW-Madison, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Superior and a representative of local media, a representative from the technology sector and two public members. 

The Civic Information Consortium Board would be modeled after a similar one in New Jersey, which was adopted in 2018. Frandsen noted that that program has awarded about $6 million in grants since its inception. 

Anderson noted that the program will be set up so that legislators cannot interfere with the accountability work that journalists often engage in. 

“The goal, obviously, is for journalists to be able to hold us accountable and if the money was at all able to be controlled by the legislators themselves, my concern was that it would influence the editorial process,” Anderson said. “So there are a lot of roadblocks to ensure that there is a separation between who receives those grants and any of the reporting that they may be doing on the individuals in the Legislature themselves.” 

Under the bill, board members who are legislators would not be allowed to vote on matters related to a grant award.

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Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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