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California’s news desert response a model Washington should follow

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Washington should be cautious about copying every new policy dreamed up in California.

But the Golden State’s new response to the local journalism crisis is one that Washington and every other state should consider emulating.

Under a new fellowship program signed into law on Sept. 6, an estimated 120 graduating journalism students will be placed in three-year jobs at news outlets across California.

The idea is to start restoring local coverage in news deserts. It will also help universities and the profession attract more journalism students.

Half the students will come from the University of California, Berkeley, which is administering the program, and the rest from other journalism schools. The fellowships will pay $50,000 per year.

This $25 million program is a smart way to do several things at once: It boosts the state’s higher education system, increases job opportunities for graduates, supports local communities suffering from the loss of local news and helps struggling news outlets survive.

“Journalism and democracy are both in a fragile state. Stabilizing one firms up another,” California state Sen. Steve Glazer, the bill’s champion, told me.

“My hope is to energize newsrooms across California with vibrant independent watchdog journalism that keeps elected officials accountable and restores faith in news and democracy.”

That resonates with Washington state Sen. Karen Keiser, a Des Moines Democrat and Senate President Pro Tempore.

A Berkeley graduate, Keiser heard about the journalism program from the school and “thought that sounded like something Washington state could do.”

Keiser is researching how a similar program could be done in Washington.

The state has multiple journalism schools that could participate. I encourage their leaders, and other elected officials wanting to address the journalism crisis, to help her craft a proposal for the 2023 Legislature.

“This is something we would love to see happen … for the benefit of democracy across our state,” Bruce Pinkleton, dean of Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, said.

Details of California’s program are still being finalized. To add further distance between the government and news outlets and avoid appearance of influencing, decisions about fellowships and placements will be made by an advisory board including journalists and educators.

Glazer, an advocate of government oversight and accountability legislation, said the program was designed so the journalism it supports is “completely independent of government.”

Geeta Anand, Berkeley Journalism dean, said she wants the program to be flexible about who is eligible and will leave such decisions to the advisory board.

“We’ll be expansive and inclusive and draw in enlightened and passionate leadership from other journalism schools, local journalism and other types of journalism to navigate this together,” she said. “That’s the only way we’ll succeed, if we’re inclusive and make this a truly statewide program.”

Anand expects to place 40 fellows per year over three years. Finding candidates should be easy; she said “there’s lots of interest” in journalism among students and waiting lists for an entry-level class.

“The crisis in democracy right now and the rise in authoritarianism and the climate crisis and so much that’s happening in the world is really making young people interested in having an impact and seeing the importance of journalism,” she said.

California lost a quarter of its local newspapers between 2004 and 2019. Many of the remainders are ghost papers, with few reporters who can only produce minimal coverage.

That mirrors a national trend that’s left thousands of local communities and millions of voters with little to no local news coverage.

The industry is retooling to better compete online but it’s not easy, especially with unfair competition in the digital ad market, or happening fast enough to prevent massive job losses in newsrooms.

Meanwhile, democratic governments around the world are looking for ways to save local press systems that are essential to keep voters informed and hold officials accountable.

The European Union, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are considering or have passed laws to help news outlets directly or indirectly. The U.S. Congress is considering similar bills but the most promising one, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, is under heavy attack by Google, Facebook and their allies.

State efforts to assist are mixed. An advertising tax credit in Wisconsin failed to pass while New Jersey created a $5 million grant program to support news outlets.

Washington provides a business and occupation tax break to newspaper publishers, similar to what other manufacturers receive, but it’s expiring next year.

There is no single solution to the journalism crisis. A mix of responses are necessary.

But for now, California has raised the bar with a creative way for states to assist. Keiser’s leadership here is wonderful, and Washington’s Legislature should seriously consider a similar approach.

“You can’t sit on the sidelines, see the deterioration of journalism, see the fraying our of our democratic institutions and not try to do something about it,” Glazer said. “It is groundbreaking, and I hope it will inspire additional support for journalism across the industry.”





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