Local news coverage crisis hits home 17-year-old ChicoSol "well-positioned" to thrive

by Natalie Hanson
commentary posted March 2

(ChicoSol coverage of the nationwide local news crisis has received support from an Ethnic Media Services fellowship.)

The rapid erosion of local news across the country is nothing short of a five-alarm emergency for democracy — and it will take creativity and commitment to keep democracy’s fourth pillar standing.

Rebuild Local News Founder Steven Waldman

Butte County affairs are covered by only a few news outlets that employ a handful of journalists. Research shows reduced local news coverage is linked to less government transparency and reduced civic engagement. Most citizens do not have time to carefully monitor the use of their tax dollars and attend public meetings that reporters once watched closely.

Most of the newsroom positions that fueled news production at the daily Chico Enterprise-Record several decades ago have been gradually eliminated. (The ER is owned by Media NewsGroup.) We’ve also seen the move to digital-only reporting for the weekly Chico News & Review because of advertising revenue losses.

We’re here to state that it’s time for news professionals who still believe in news over profit to move beyond the old business models that rely on advertising revenue and are owned by distant corporations and billionaire hedge funds. The Enterprise-Record is one of those newsrooms; Alden Global Capital owns MediaNews Group. Many of those funds have ruthlessly culled newsrooms around the country.

We believe that ChicoSol is well-positioned to thrive with its record of hyperlocal and deeply-researched journalism. ChicoSol was founded 17 years ago as a not-for-profit digital publication that would mentor young journalists, cover the Latinx community and provide investigative reporting. Since then, we’ve run on reader donations complemented by fellowships, covering stories that would otherwise have been untold.

ChicoSol co-founder Leslie Layton

Now, publishers, editors and media researchers around the country are working to produce new solutions to save local news, and many if not most are experimenting with similar models — digital-only and/or nonprofit.

The donor-based model used by ChicoSol has been used elsewhere with success. Martha Diaz Aszkenazy owns and publishes the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol that runs on donations, with only a small portion of its revenue coming from advertising and online revenue.

Diaz Aszkenazy participated in a recent news briefing sponsored by Ethnic Media Services (EMS), and also on the panel was Steven Waldman, founder and president of Rebuild Local News. Waldman referred to the problem of “news deserts,” noting they’re emerging even in areas where not all local news outlets are gone: “There’s just way less actual coverage. This is a moment where ethnic media can have a very big impact on public policy discussion.”

Waldman thinks there are several ways that public policy can help the fight to ensure that local news outlets survive. Government advertising dollars funneled toward news coverage is one way; tax credits, such as those the Community News and Small Business Support Act would provide for local papers that retain reporters could be another. Also under discussion is a tax credit for small businesses that advertise with local news outlets.

Press Forward is an initiative led by two foundations with more than 20 funders to spend $500 million over five years as a new pool of money for local news. It is still unclear how news outlets will apply and qualify for what funding, Waldman said.

Ryan Adam of Canada’s Toronto Star said that the paper has survived since 1892 by changing its business model several times. Canada is currently working on legislation to compel Google and other companies to pay news organizations to use their content, and the Star already has similar deals with Google and Meta.

“I strongly encourage tech leaders to acknowledge the impact that real, fact-based journalism has in local communities in terms of bringing us together as a society,” Adam said. “In the absence of real journalism, all we’re going to get is pseudo journalists … and folks who don’t go through the rigorous fact checking we do in our newsrooms.”

Natalie Hanson

Of course, reader donations must be supplemented by grants, tax credits and other revenue sources. But the bottom line is this: It’s become clearer than ever that we can only preserve democracy by preserving independent news outlets. There is a future for journalism that speaks truth to power in this country — and that future is being built.

Natalie Hanson is a contributing editor to ChicoSol.

1 thought on “Local news coverage crisis hits home 17-year-old ChicoSol "well-positioned" to thrive

  1. Wow, what a story. That is the challenge to articulate the benefits of local journalism to your market. “You know who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior.” George Gerbner, Dean of Communications at Penn State U.

    Keep up the good work. The check is in the mail.

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