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Local journalism is shrinking and disappearing in states across the country, and Wisconsin is no exception.

The state has lost roughly 30 percent of its newspapers since 2004, and total circulation has declined by approximately 40 percent. Corporate consolidation has led to media outlets downsizing or outright shutting down, and thousands of journalists losing their jobs. This crisis has created news deserts, leaving too many Wisconsin residents in the dark about what’s happening in their communities, schools, local businesses and halls of government. 

This is more than just a moment of crisis for the journalism industry — it’s a threat to Wisconsin’s democracy and civic health.

That’s what makes a new package of bills before the Wisconsin state legislature so important. These three pieces of legislation take a holistic approach to strengthening local news and fostering more informed communities by supporting existing outlets, sustaining jobs and investing in the future of media across the state.

I was honored to join the lead sponsors of the package — Rep. Jimmy Anderson, Rep. Jodi Emerson and Sen. Mark Spreitzer — in Madison for a press conference on Jan. 31. I know that we’ll be working hard here at Free Press Action to support these exciting and much-needed measures.

How will these bills help local journalism?

The three components of the package include:

  • A bill to create a Wisconsin Civic Information Consortium, which would provide grants to local journalism and media projects that directly address residents’ civic-information needs. An independent bipartisan board would run the consortium, which would be housed within the University of Wisconsin system and include strict firewalls to prevent any government interference. It’s modeled after New Jersey’s Civic Information Consortium, which Free Press Action helped establish in 2018.
  • A bill to create a journalism-fellowship program within the University of Wisconsin system that would fund and place 25 reporters annually in the communities and newsrooms that need coverage the most. 
  • A bill that would incentivize newspaper subscriptions by creating a nonrefundable income-tax credit for residents who subscribe to their local outlets, with a maximum benefit of up to $250 per year.

What’s notable about these bills is that they each address a different layer of the local-news and civic-information crisis. The subscription tax credit would infuse support for existing publications that have seen their revenue models upended in the digital age. The fellowship program would create a reliable pipeline of jobs in an industry that has seen its employment levels nosedive over the past two decades. And most excitingly, the proposed civic information consortium would represent a true reimagination of how public funding can address the decline in local news and serve community-information needs. 

Why does it matter?

These bills are a big step forward for a few reasons.

At the most basic level, the introduction of the package is further proof that the tide is turning on local-news policy — for decades, lawmakers have sat on the sidelines while corporations and hedge funds gutted commercial journalism. BIPOC journalists and newsroom leaders, ethnic media outlets and independent nonprofit publishers are doing admirable work to fill in the gaps, but the cold, hard truth is that there is no sustainable future for local news without responsible government intervention. Lawmakers across the country are beginning to recognize that, with the new package in Wisconsin serving as prime evidence.

But the package is also notable for what’s not included — namely, the sort of bargaining-code approach that lawmakers in both California and the U.S. Congress have pursued in recent years. We’ve written about this before, but corporate media giants are pushing lawmakers across the country to adopt policies that would force tech platforms to pay publications for linking to their content. This arrangement would create a windfall of cash for the largest media outlets (many of them owned by hedge funds and chains) and incentivize the production of clickbait rather than impactful local-news coverage. Meanwhile, independent, nonprofit and ethnic media outlets would receive very little funding.

Unfortunately, this flawed idea has captured the attention of many government leaders keen on aiding local news. However, the Wisconsin bills — which are far more efficient, direct and intentional in their support for local journalism — are showing that there’s a better path forward. We strongly hope that these measures move forward in the state legislature, but they may be just as important for their ability to spur conversations in other states. 

What’s next in lawmakers’ fight to strengthen local news?

The immediate fate of the bills is unclear in light of the state’s political polarization — Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, and Democrats introduced the package. However, even though passage may be an uphill battle this session, the introduction of this package can build momentum for future action.

Rep. Anderson, for his part, has signaled that his office wants to hear from any and all parties interested in bolstering local news. On our side, we’ll be engaging with key stakeholders and potential allies in the coming months to raise awareness of the package and share our experiences from similar efforts in New Jersey and other states. We’ll also support the bills through our work with the Media Power Collaborative, a national hub for organizing and learning around policy campaigns to address the decline in local news.

It was a privilege to be on the starting line for these bills. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll get to see them cross the finish line, too.

Help Free Press Action keep fighting for policies that will give people the news and information they need: Donate today.

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