Is Wisconsin ready to fund local news with public money? – Isthmus

A Fitchburg state representative has some ambitious proposals to do so
February 2, 2024
9:00 AM
Submitted photo
Concern about people’s ‘media diets’ led state Rep. Jimmy Anderson on a quest to find solutions.
The state of New Jersey is doing something radical when it comes to local news. Through the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, created by the state Legislature in 2018, it provides taxpayer funding to news outlets around the state, particularly to those in news deserts and those serving historically marginalized communities. 
Also radical: the consortium provides funding to support operational expenses as well as new programs. Philanthropic foundations often offer only programmatic funding, which is vexing for many news organizations that need help simply to keep providing news content to their communities. 
According to Chris Daggett, chair of the consortium board and its interim director, “New Jersey is the only state in the nation that provides public funding to support the establishment and ongoing operations of news organizations.”
The consortium is organized as a nonprofit with a 16-person governing board made up of political appointees, representatives from universities (which are designated as members of the consortium), and reps from tech and media industries. The first funding for the consortium — $500,000 — was not awarded until 2021 due to COVID, says Daggett. 
That year board members decided to postpone hiring staff and instead handled the evaluation of grant proposals themselves. The consortium gave out 14 grants of $35,000 each in 2021. Remaining money went toward training programs. 
The New Jersey Legislature subsequently appropriated $2 million in 2022, $4 million in 2023 and $4 million in 2024. As of last year, the consortium supported 81 grants with $5.5 million in funding. 
While some people fear that public funding of media threatens press independence, Daggett says in an interview that this has been a non-issue. “The statute is clear that nobody is allowed to influence grantee work in any way,” he says, adding that in his five years with the group there have been no attempts at interference. “They have left us alone.”
The consortium model might not be for everyone, but governments must start funding local news, says Daggett: “Local news will not survive going forward in my view without extensive and prolonged public support. I believe states all over the country need to get involved and support local news outlets.”
Wisconsin Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) discovered the work of the New Jersey consortium while researching ways to improve people’s “media diets.” He says he has become increasingly concerned about the quality of information being consumed by residents as legitimate news outlets continue to lose resources or shutter entirely.
“The internet has allowed individuals to find news sources that reflect their opinions, rather than news sources that reflect basic truth and reality,” says Anderson, a candidate for the state Senate seat being vacated by Melissa Agard, who is running for Dane County executive.
Anderson is the author of a recently introduced package of bills aimed at improving the quality and quantity of local news available to state residents, including one that calls for the creation of a Civic Information Consortium Board in partnership with the Universities of Wisconsin. Similar to the New Jersey program, a nonprofit board, consisting of political appointees as well as members of the media and tech industries, would govern operations and oversee grantmaking. The bill includes a proposed appropriation of $20 million for start-up costs in 2024 and $1 million in 2025. 
Anderson says the grants could make possible “deep dives” by newspapers into particular areas, like the recent series on homeschooling published by the Washington Post. “I found it incredibly illuminating and interesting,” he says. 
The representative says the consortium would need “guardrails in place” to prevent government interference into media operations. “We want to make sure they have the freedom to do their investigations without worry about their funding being cut.”
Another of Anderson’s bills would create a journalism fellowship program in the Universities of Wisconsin System with a $1 million appropriation from the Legislature (none of Anderson’s bills have a fiscal note yet). Under the program, 25 graduates of two-year or four-year degree programs in journalism, media and communications would be matched with participating newsrooms for a one-year fellowship that comes with a $40,000 salary. 
Young journalists get experience and newsrooms get badly needed help.
“One of the big issues anyone in this business can recognize is that hiring is always the most difficult thing,” says Anderson. “It’s a great way to get people into the industry and help the industry deal with one of the biggest expenses they have.”
Another bill would create a tax credit for people who subscribe to a newspaper; the credit would be limited to 50 percent of the subscription with a maximum credit of $250 annually. 
“We want to get people reading newspapers again and be aware of what is going on in their communities,” says Anderson. “If we made the newspaper a little more affordable by offering them this tax credit, it would give them access to high quality local journalism.”
One catch is that only subscriptions to papers that publish legal notices would be eligible for the tax credit. Anderson says that is intended to weed out outlets that produce partisan and ideologically based content. 
Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, says her group was not involved in the development of Anderson’s package. But the WNA board has reviewed the drafts and is generally supportive. 
“There are a lot of elements that are being pursued in other states and at the federal level,” she says. “Having 25 people out in the field would be very helpful,” Bennett says of the fellowship program, noting that finding reporters and advertising reps to hire is one of the most significant challenges facing her members.  
The WNA was involved in an effort a couple of years ago to create a state tax credit that would have been available to small businesses that purchased advertising in local media. Republican Rep. Todd Novak, a former reporter and editor, was the author of the bill and while it had bipartisan support it never got out of committee — doomed in the end by a fiscal note that seemed to overestimate just how many advertisers would take advantage of the opportunity. Lawmakers were concerned it would take too large a chunk out of state coffers.
Legislative aide Morgan O’Flahrity says Novak tried unsuccessfully to work the measure into the most recent state budget and will try again with the next state budget in January 2025. “Stand-alone” proposals with a fiscal impact have a hard time advancing in the Legislature, explains O’Flahrity. 
Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) is an Assembly co-sponsor of Anderson’s bills and Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) is the Senate sponsor but so far no Republicans are on board. That does not bode well in a Legislature with a significant Republican majority. 
But Bennett takes the long view: “We’re just glad that people are talking about and realize that there is an issue with regard to the needs of our media outlets in the state.” 
February 2, 2024
9:00 AM
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