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We’ve all heard about the perils facing local journalism. Job losses decimating the ranks of reporters. Hedge-fund greed. Corporate consolidation. News deserts. It can all sound downright apocalyptic.

But for all the despair — and in spite of the introduction of flawed bills like the California Journalism Preservation Act — 2023 also brought us an equal dose of hope. Activists, lawmakers and philanthropists alike have begun to drive forward a new vision for local news and civic information — one that prioritizes community needs over industry desires, impact over profits.

In February, Free Press’ Mike Rispoli joined with Elizabeth Green and Darryl Holliday to release The Roadmap for Local News, an actionable plan to ensure that every U.S. community has the news and information it needs to thrive. As the authors put it, “The opportunity now is to shepherd and accelerate a transition to this emergent civic media system…in which information is fluid, services are shared, and media is made in cooperation with the people it seeks to serve.”

Free Press is joining a growing field of civic media advocates and practitioners to seize this opportunity. Before we return to this work in 2024, it’s worth taking a step back to note the promising developments that this year brought — and how much opportunity still lies ahead. 

Advocates advanced promising policy efforts — and stalled progress on the harmful JCPA and CJPA

After decades of inaction, lawmakers at both the federal and state levels have begun seriously exploring policy interventions to address the ongoing decline of local journalism.

Unfortunately, too many lawmakers favor an approach that would force large tech platforms to pay news outlets for linking to their content, an inherently flawed model that benefits massive media conglomerates and incentivizes clickbait. In Congress, legislators reintroduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), which had stalled in the Senate in the previous session. Members of the California statehouse followed suit with the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), a modified version of the federal bill that would result in a windfall for Big Media while providing pennies on the dollar to locally focused independent, nonprofit and ethnic media outlets.    

The good news is that both measures haven’t yet moved forward. The JCPA has failed to gain traction in Congress after passing out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and in California, lawmakers pressed pause on the CJPA after strong opposition from civil- and digital-rights groups, small publishers and community advocates.

Meanwhile, a number of promising efforts emerged that could help shape a more sustainable and impactful local-journalism ecosystem:

  • In Illinois, a local-news task force that lawmakers authorized back in 2021 finally began its work. The task force is studying communities that local journalism has failed to serve and reviewing policy options to improve local-news access. 
  • In Washington, state lawmakers appropriated over $2 million to create a journalism fellowship program aimed at plugging critical information gaps.  
  • Speaking of journalism fellowships, 39 members of the first cohort of the California Local News Fellowship were placed in newsrooms from Humboldt to San Diego. The fellowship is funded by a transformative $25-million investment the state legislature approved last year.  
  • In New Mexico, lawmakers set aside $125,000 to expand the Local News Fellowships and Internships Program that the New Mexico Local News Fund runs, marking the first time that the program has ever received state funds. 
  • In the nation’s capital, meanwhile, members of the D.C. Council introduced a groundbreaking new bill that would issue nearly $11 million in vouchers to city residents who would then donate the vouchers to local journalism outlets of their choice. 

$500-million commitment marks a new era in local-news philanthropy

In September, dozens of philanthropic institutions joined together to launch Press Forward, an initiative to invest $500 million in local news and information that aligns closely with the findings of The Roadmap for Local News.

One of Press Forward’s core priorities is to advance public policies that bolster and transform local journalism. The MacArthur Foundation — a key player in the initiative — announced that it would provide $1 million to Free Press to help the organization support the creation of local and state policies that prioritize the information needs of underserved communities.

While historic, this infusion of philanthropic support is just the beginning. To seize on this moment, media practitioners, pro-democracy advocates, funders and government leaders will need to organize around a shared set of principles to guide the transformation of local news. Fortunately, 2023 also saw promising developments in this regard. 

The civic-media field gets organized

Free Press’ Media Power Collaborative (MPC) — made up of nearly 200 media workers, movement organizers and allied researchers — grew in 2023. MPC members met for workshops, policy updates and the group’s first-ever in-person event.

Members also gathered in focus groups and dozens of smaller meetings this fall to flesh out how the MPC can best meet this moment and uplift a community-centered approach to reimagining local journalism.

The result of this deliberation was a renewed strategic plan for 2024, one that will turn the MPC into a national hub for strategy, action and learning around media policy. When MPC members come back together next year, they’ll begin building a collective understanding of the current political landscape, and develop the political-organizing skills needed to drive forward legislative campaigns. By the end of 2024, the MPC will become a hands-on policy-organizing laboratory, with members contributing to state and local campaigns across the country.

All in all, 2023 showed that rays of hope are beginning to punch through the cloudy discourse that so often defines discussions about the state of local journalism. As the civic-media field continues to build power and get organized, 2024 could show us that the bold new future of local news and civic information isn’t as far away as it once seemed. 

Help Free Press continue to fight for local journalism that strengthens communities and our democracy: Donate today.

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