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Local news faces no shortage of existential questions these days. Among these: Where do the needs of media workers and the needs of the communities they cover overlap? And as lawmakers focus more and more on ways to address the decline of local journalism, how can they center both areas of need in policy solutions?

For the Media Power Collaborative (MPC) — a Free Press-led coalition focused on building grassroots power to transform local news — May Day provided a strong backdrop to dive into these questions. As people across the country and around the world honored International Labor Day on May 1, MPC members heard from three panelists who spoke at length about how community members and journalism workers can work together to structurally transform local journalism, reorienting it away from profit-chasing and corporate consolidation and toward serving community-information needs and ensuring fair working conditions.

The speakers included:

  • Alex Han, the executive director of In These Times. He served as Midwest political director for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, worked to amplify the power of community and labor organizations at Bargaining for the Common Good, served as a vice president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, and helped found United Working Families. 
  • Kate Harloe, an independent writer and a member of the Freelance Solidarity Project, a union of digital media workers raising labor standards across the industry
  • Andy Grimm, a reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times and president of the Chicago News Guild, a union with more than 600 members across the Chicago area.

Free Press’ News Voices director, Vanessa Maria Graber, moderated the discussion. Here’s what we covered.

'Reporters’ working conditions are our community’s newsgathering conditions'

Grimm kicked off the panel by sharing a glimmer of hope from South Bend, Indiana. Three years ago, Gannett bought The South Bend Tribune, which had previously enjoyed decades of local family ownership. In the years that followed, Gannett pared the newsroom down significantly and coverage of the city suffered.

This past winter, the paper’s unionized staff — which had shrunk from 42 to 10 after Gannett’s purchase — decided to turn to community residents to explore solutions. “We convened a community forum that drew about 130 people on a frosty day in November, and from that we’ve actually built a working group that’s trying to find a way to potentially buy The South End Tribune, or to find some way that we can subsidize quality journalism and quality jobs,” said Grimm.

The success of that community-outreach effort belied a core truth: Community members are invested in their local-news environment, and they’ll turn out to help if given the chance. As Grimm put it, “Reporters’ working conditions are our community’s newsgathering conditions.”

Han jumped in to note that Grimm was reflecting an emerging concept in labor organizing: bargaining for the common good. Campaigns that employ this practice are focused on uniting workers and the communities they serve, with an end goal of securing victories that extend beyond the workplace. “The points of greatest leverage for workers,” Han said, “ … [need to be] imagined as points of greater leverage for the communities that they serve. There’s real solidarity to be built in opening up [a] conversation about how we can use these points of leverage to both strengthen our existing unions and strengthen our media system.”

Building solidarity between organized labor and communities

In recent debates around bills like the California Journalism Preservation Act and the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, the civic-media movement and organized labor haven’t always seen eye to eye. This sort of legislation would funnel money toward the biggest journalism employers, including media conglomerates and hedge funds. This could boost workers’ interests in the short term, but create an environment that could stifle community publishers and further deteriorate the local-news ecosystem in the long term.

The panelists underscored the importance of moving beyond these disagreements and building solidarity around the kinds of solutions that benefit communities and workers alike. “At the highest level … we have so many common enemies,” said Harloe. “Big corporations, big media companies — these institutions are extracting wealth from all of us, whether we’re community members, whether we’re civic-media advocates, whether we’re labor organizers or workers.”

One policy solution that big unions and civic-media advocates can unite behind is a digital ad tax to support local news. A local-news bill centered on a digital ad tax is moving through the California statehouse, and it has received support from labor organizers, small publishers and civic-media organizations alike. This approach mirrors many of the motivations baked into bills like the CJPA while avoiding consequences that could undermine the open internet. 

Policy change to benefit workers and communities

As Han noted, “we’re in this resurgent moment for the labor movement. None of us know how long that's going to last, how long this kind of political moment is going to exist.” The fragility — and potential — of this moment underscore the importance of building power and momentum while we can. With that in mind, the speakers shared what they believe are top priorities for political action when it comes to transforming local journalism. 

Grimm focused on the need to combat corporate consolidation and keep newsroom ownership in local hands. “You cannot have more journalism without more journalists. We need better owners — people that are going to take every fungible dollar and put it into the newsroom,” he said. 

Harloe, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of a “just transition for journalism” and what that would entail. “For me, that means three main things,” she explained. “One is power. We need to redistribute power and democratize journalism at a systemic level. Two is profit: We need to redistribute capital and create cooperatively run institutions that are owned by workers and the communities they serve. Three, we need policies that incentivize and protect such a system. We need public funding.” 

Want to be in community with other leaders transforming local news? Interested in learning about how public policy shapes the media system, and what you can do about it? Learn more and sign up to join the Media Power Collaborative.

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