Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Public funding in local journalism is no silver bullet. But some industry leaders argue it’s necessary

Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

Sophia Vento is a 2023-2024 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

For some, government investment seems like the last hope in keeping the journalism industry afloat. But this funding is not a holy grail.

“I don’t think public funding is a silver bullet,” said Mike Rispoli, the senior director of journalism and civic information at the Free Press in New Jersey. “But I don’t see any viable solution without it.” 

In January 2024, over 500 journalists were laid off in the United States. Legacy outlets and news startups alike – such as Pitchfork, Sports Illustrated and The Messenger – have shuttered or laid off most of their staff in the last few months. And it’s even worse at local levels. 

According to Northwestern University’s Medill School, the loss of local newspapers accelerated in 2023 – meaning more than half of the counties in the United States have either one remaining news source or no local outlet whatsoever.

More and more people continue to avoid the news as well. A report from the Reuters Institute revealed that 36% of people surveyed regularly actively avoid the news. Trust has also declined. It remains near the record low, with 38% of Americans having absolutely no trust in newspapers, TV and radio. 

Some states, like New Mexico, New Jersey and California, have utilized public policy to fund journalism fellowships, tax credits for newspaper subscriptions and other initiatives that strengthen local reporting and combat news deserts. This year, both Wisconsin and Illinois are considering similar bills.

News organizations have seen minimal success at a federal level over the years, however. The Future of Local News Act, as well as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, failed to make it to the House floor. Introduced in July 2023, the Community News and Small Business Support Act boasts bipartisan support for tax credits for local newsrooms’ salaries and small businesses advertising in outlets. 

However, there is a lack of consensus across the industry about whether this practice is justified. Some argue government involvement in journalism is antithetical to its watchdog purpose while others believe the industry has hit a wall. 

“There’s no commercial future for the local journalism that our democracy requires,” said Victor Pickard, a media and policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “The government has an affirmative duty to guarantee that we actually have a press system in place that makes democracy possible.” 

And in New Jersey, policymakers hope to do just that. 

Through the support of existing commercial models and investment in new, nonprofit and nontraditional newsrooms, the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, has awarded $5.5 million in public funding through 81 grants to dozens of local newsrooms across the state.   

Established in 2018 through robust advocacy efforts to pass the Civic Information Bill, state law ensures that both the state of New Jersey, as well as the consortium itself, cannot exercise editorial control over the grantees. 

“The consortium plays a critical role of being a buffer between government funds and the news,” said Ayinde Merrill, the program officer for the consortium.

For some, however, the unpredicatability of sustained public funding of these initiatives is a point of concern. 

“What the government gives, the government can take away,” said Jeff Jarvis, the director of Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York. “[But] every revenue stream brings a potential conflict. The essence of journalism is to guard against that conflict and to earn the trust of the public.” 

Public funding in journalism is not unheard of, though. Despite chronic underfunding, NPR and PBS remain pillars in the American journalism landscape. Both outlets have received funding from public sources – and private ones – for decades. The New Jersey Civic Information Consortium also remains partly reliant on private funding, specifically from philanthropic organizations and other private groups. 

“We still get the majority of our funding from the state,” Merrill said. “And that is very fickle at times. It’s fighting that battle of diversifying your chains of income to make sure that you’re sustainable.”

Hedge funds, philanthropists, billionaires – and governments – in the news business have interests that could intervene with the goals and missions of true, independent journalism, Jarvis said.

“There’s always going to be a very real tension between the journalists who produce the journalism and the people who pay their salaries,” Rispoli added. 

But the question remains how can the industry prevent that interference. In Rispoli’s view, existing legislation offers robust protections but having to lobby legislators every year for money is where it can get murky. 

“It could potentially increase the risk of political interference if you go back every year and ask for money,” Rispoli said. 

For Pickard and Rispoli, everything comes back to one simple notion: market failure.

“The most appropriate response to a market failure where a public good is not accessible to the public is through direct forms of public funding,” Rispoli said.  

However, Merrill, Pickard, Rispoli and Jarvis all agree the industry should not be making strides to return to the journalism that was. 

“[Commercial media] is never going to be the size that it was,” Rispoli said. “We need to be growing in our non-commercial space, especially because that’s where a lot of the most exciting things happening in journalism are occurring.” 

Both Pickard and Jarvis argue its time to fundamentally rethink journalism and its role in American society

“We need to be thinking of journalism not as this profit-making widget but this democracy dependent, essential public service,” Pickard said. “We want to empower journalists to be journalists. The only way to do that is to guarantee funding well into the future.” 

In Salem County, a complete news desert in the southern portion of New Jersey, the Consortium has sought out to reinvigorate local, community-based journalism. 

Consortium team members visited the county to hold focus groups and talk to community members about what they would like to see in a community information source— all in an effort to fund a full time reporter covering local government and the city council. This initiative is in coordination with the South Jersey Information Equity Project, which trains young students of color in how to enter the media and news market. 

“You just can’t provide news and information,” Merrill said. “You have to provide the trust and build the trust so people can engage with that news and information.” 

For Merrill, on the front lines of grant allocations to local newsrooms across New Jersey, the role of public funding in the journalism industry remains rather simple. 

“We want people to participate in democracy,” Merrill said. “And the heartbeat of that is consistent, reliable and trusted news.” 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.