Lawmakers wander into news deserts

Tree in a desert

Photo: Sergey Pesterev | Unsplash

Seeing the link with democracy, legislators put forward bills to protect local news

By Jared Schroeder and Joy Jenkins

California Assemblymember Buffy Wicks wanted to support local journalism in her state. Her solution was the California Journalism Preservation Act, which she proposed in February 2023. She framed it as a journalism jobs bill.

Why this matters

News deserts pose a risk to democracy. Lawmakers are starting to take notice. As more and more communities lose access to local journalism, lawmakers in about a dozen states have proposed laws to support community news organizations.

This project is among the first to gather the bills lawmakers have proposed and analyze them.

The bill proposed forcing big tech firms to pay a “journalism usage fee” each time they sold advertising alongside local news content. It also required 70 percent of the usage fee funds to be invested in newsroom staff. Her bill quickly garnered the support of the California News Publishers Association and the Washington-based nonprofit News/Media Alliance and drew national media coverage and the ire of Meta.

The California Journalism Preservation Act passed the House in June, but the legislative session ended before it could receive full consideration in the Senate. The bill is slated to pick up where it left off in the Senate during the 2024 legislative session.

Assemblymember Wicks’s bill is part of a growing number of efforts by state and federal lawmakers to support local journalism. Nearly 3,000 newspapers have closed in the U.S. in the past two decades. Most have been community daily and weekly publications. As smaller publications have closed, large U.S. news organizations, most recently the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine, have continued substantial layoffs. The provision of journalism in society is endangered. Lawmakers have started to notice.

Researchers at the Missouri School of Journalism’s Reynolds Journalism Institute are tracking lawmakers’ efforts to support local journalism and, in a recent state-by-state analysis, found lawmakers filed 29 bills in a dozen states between 2018 and 2023. Only three of the bills became laws. As lawmakers begin debating in statehouses around the country this month, the next generation of bills aimed at supporting local journalism will be among them.

Researchers at the Missouri School of Journalism’s Reynolds Journalism Institute are tracking lawmakers’ efforts to support local journalism and, in a recent state-by-state analysis, found lawmakers filed 29 bills in a dozen states between 2018 and 2023. Only three of the bills became laws.

The bills we analyzed varied in the type of support they offered. Many, including four bills in New York, proposed tax credits for newspaper payrolls or local media advertising, as well as tax deductions for people who subscribe to newspapers. Washington state passed the only successful tax-exemption law in the nation. The 2023 law makes newspaper publishers exempt from certain state business taxes.

Other states proposed studying news deserts. The bill creating Illinois’s Local Journalism Task Force, for example, was passed in 2021. New Jersey created the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium in 2018 to “bolster public-interest journalism, civic information, and media innovation.” Some states proposed state funding to hire journalists with money generally flowing through university journalism programs to news efforts.

California, for example, set aside $25 million to fund a local reporting fellowship program through the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2022. Similarly, Washington state budgeted $2.4 million in its 2023 budget to establish a public-interest journalism fellowship through the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

Few bills were as ambitious as the California Journalism Preservation Act, which received pushback from the technology firms it targeted.

While the bills generally sought different types of support, they shared reoccurring features and challenges — each of which could help future efforts by lawmakers to support local journalism. Thinking about these challenges can also help journalists and journalism organizations support such bills.

Journalism = Democracy

Our first observation in analyzing the language in the bills was that the most detailed examples emphasized the role journalism plays in democracy. Lawmakers often conveyed that they understood journalism and democracy as being inseparably linked, including journalism’s role in informing citizens, empowering citizen engagement, and strengthening communities.

It is noteworthy the concerns lawmakers conveyed in the bills were not focused on national news outlets or journalism in general. They emphasized the importance of local journalism and correlated community news organizations with the future of democracy.

New York Assemblymember Carrie Woerner, who has proposed multiple laws to support journalism in recent years, explained in a 2023 tax-credit bill, “This legislation is necessary to provide support for local news organizations that employ community-based journalists. … It will help New Yorkers stay informed and engaged with what’s going on in their community.”

Their concerns align with findings from The State of Local News project at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, which emphasized in its annual report on local news that democracy struggles and communities become more polarized when they lose their news sources.

California’s bill, from the beginning, highlights this: “Every day, journalism plays an essential role in California and in local communities.” The New Jersey law that created a journalism consortium among universities in the state emphasized that “the people of New Jersey need accurate, relevant, timely, and trustworthy news and information to be civically engaged.”

Oregon Rep. Khanh Pham, who sponsored a bill in 2023 that would have created grants to support local journalism, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle, “Democracy depends on an informed public.”

Lawmakers also conveyed these concerns in terms of what is lost when news organizations are not present in communities. “The loss of local journalism is correlated to the decline in civic engagement,” Washington’s tax-credit law explained.

Assemblymember Woerner told an Albany public radio station in March 2023 that the best way to “make sure that we’ve got strong communities is by having, you know, having local journalists. It plays a key role.”

A who’s who problem

Despite careful efforts in many of the proposed bills, the beneficiaries of the proposed laws were not always clear.

A tax-exemption bill proposed in Maine in 2021 defined a newspaper as a “a publication on newsprint sold for a monetary fee that is published not less than every 2 weeks.” A second section of the bill required the newspaper serve the public interest. While public-interest concerns are central to community journalism, many political action groups could claim their publications benefit the public good. The definition also excluded magazines and other monthly media, as well as a broad spectrum of 21st-century, digital journalism efforts. Similarly, a New Mexico news fellowship bill, proposed in 2023, didn’t include a definition of what qualifies as a journalism fellowship. Could the money be used to fund a conspiracy-theory podcast or pink-slime journalism?

These examples are not intended to attack lawmakers who have proposed laws to support local journalism. Instead, analyzing these efforts conveyed the need for more careful constructions of who would benefit, both for the success of the bill and for journalism. Based on the definitions provided in some of the bills, supports intended for journalists and news organizations could easily be claimed by political action groups, public relations practitioners, or podcasters with no intent to do journalistic work. Definitions also often left out news organizations that do not fit traditional definitions, such as those that serve specific racial, ethnic, or other communities.

Definitional problems surrounding who is a journalist are nothing new and have played a role in derailing efforts to create a federal reporters’ shield law. The PRESS Act, which was passed by the House in January, avoids many of the definitional problems, but the pitfalls in defining who is covered were concerning throughout the laws state lawmakers proposed to support local journalism.

After analyzing the bills, we concluded a definition based on who or what organization was protected would always be problematic in the networked era. Instead, we argue lawmakers should focus on supporting people and organizations that follow traditional journalistic processes and practices in their work.

The laws, in other words, should focus on practices rather than people. Such a definition would focus on areas such as whether work was edited, interviews were conducted, an audience was identified, and the organization was transparent about sources, decisions, and conflicts of interest. Essentially, the definition should be based on whether the organization recognized and followed principal elements of journalism.

Experts in the room

Journalists and those who study and advocate for journalism should take a larger role in crafting laws to support local journalism.

None of the bills we analyzed attributed their definitions of a journalist or news organization to journalistic organizations or experts who study the field. This observation doesn’t indicate lawmakers have gotten everything wrong in trying to craft laws to support journalism. Lawmakers are asked to have expertise in a broad spectrum of issues that face their states. Our study suggests proposed laws might be more effective — and effectively written — if those on the front lines of the problems, as well as those who study them, were more involved.

In analyzing the laws, we found evidence that lawmakers at times borrowed from previously proposed bills, both in their states and from others. Elements of the Australia and Canada mandatory bargaining laws, which compel large technology platforms to negotiate agreements with the news organizations regarding the use of their content, were also present. While drawing from international and other state laws could be valuable, a somewhat closed circuit of lawmakers drawing from other lawmakers’ ideas leaves out some of the people and organizations that can most help efforts to support local journalism.

It’s heartening lawmakers have identified the crucial role journalism plays in informing democratic society — and that such realizations are leadings to a growing number of bills in statehouses around the country. As we continue to analyze these bills, we are most concerned with how lawmakers overcome definitional problems and the ways in which they engage with journalists and those who have extensive expertise in journalism.

Cite this article

Schroeder, Jared, & Jenkins, Joy (2024, February 20). Lawmakers wander into news deserts. Reynolds Journalism Institute. Retrieved from:

Updated: February 25, 2024

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