Variety of state legislative supports for local news media act as a series of experiments

By CISLM Research Director Jessica Mahone

Legislatures in three states — California, Washington, and New Mexico — have appropriated funding to establish local journalism fellowship programs, building on growing momentum for states to provide support to local news media.

Visit our STATEWIDE BILL TRACKER page to learn more about the current statewide local news bills.

Since 2017, legislators in 13 states have introduced 36 bills designed specifically to provide support for local news media using appropriations for fellowships and grants, tax incentives, mandated advertising expenditures, establishing a task force or commission, and charging platforms fees for news media content.

Taken together, the variety of approaches – and how they play out over the coming years – will act as a series of public policy experiments and provide a base for study and evaluation of how best to support local news.

An update to our state bill tracker includes bills introduced prior to the 2021-2022 legislative sessions as well in current sessions to provide an historical view of such legislation, building on our previous tracker of legislation introduced in 2022. This piece summarizes the major paths legislators have proposed to support local news and the outcomes of such legislation.

A view of the tracker by status of the bill (above)

Appropriations for Fellowships and Grants

Fourteen bills have proposed appropriating government funds to support local news media through fellowship programs to support reporters in local newsrooms or by establishing grant programs to support local news organizations. As of July 2023, legislatures in four states have passed appropriations to provide funding for local news. These appropriations have been used to support fellowship programs for local reporters in three states and grantmaking to news and community organizations in two states.

Bills for Fellowship Programs

Fellowship programs have been gaining momentum among state legislatures following a large appropriation to establish such a program in California. The California State Budget Act of 2022 allocated $25 million to the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley for the purpose of giving fellowships to local reporters in California newsrooms, the largest government allocation to local news in the U.S.

Since the establishment of California’s local journalism fellowship program, two other states have followed suit. In 2023, the Washington legislature included an appropriation of $2.425 million for a journalism fellowship program in its biennial budget, and the New Mexico legislature appropriated $125,000 for an existing local news fellowship program.

Bills for Grant Programs

These bills include New Jersey’s 2018 Civic Information Consortium Act, the first legislation in any state to direct funding to support local news. First introduced in 2017, the bill initially directed $20 million to the state’s Civic Information Consortium, a seventeen-member panel appointed by the governor and legislators, but the amount was reduced due to budget shortfalls, and the consortium received an initial $1 million in startup funds and has received an additional $2 million in appropriations.

The California state legislature has incorporated funding for local news into the state’s budget for two consecutive years. The State Budget Act of 2021 allocated $10 million for grants to ethnic media outlets as part of an effort to improve outreach to marginalized communities in the state, particularly Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Grants are administered by the California Department of Social Services.

Bills Proposing Tax Incentives

Legislators in seven states have introduced bills offering tax incentives to stimulate revenue for local news media. Tax incentive bills include those proposing a tax credit for subscriptions to local newspapers, a payroll tax credit for the employment of reporters, and a tax credit for small businesses that advertise in local news media. Most bills propose a combination of tax credits, particularly the subscription tax credit for individuals and the payroll tax credit for news media organizations. As of July 2023, no state legislature has passed a tax incentive bill for local news media.

Similar tax incentive bills have been introduced in Congress. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, introduced in the US Congress in 2021, proposed a combination of tax credits for subscriptions and payroll tax credits for news media. Currently, the Community News and Small Business Support Act in the US House proposes a tax credit for small businesses to advertise in local news media.

Bills Proposing a Task Force or Commission

Eight bills have proposed a task force or commission to study issues related to local news media in the state and make policy recommendations. Such bills include members appointed by political leaders, from state universities and from civic organizations within the state. As of July 2023, two bills to establish a task force or commission have passed. However, neither task force or commission has been successfully formed or issued a report.

Legislators in Massachusetts included the establishment of a special legislative commission to study local news in the commonwealth in a large economic development bill in 2020. Then-governor Charlie Baker signed the bill into law in January 2021, but currently, there have been no appointments to the commission, and the commission was not listed on the state legislature website.

The Illinois legislature passed the Local Journalism Task Force Act in 2021, and it was signed into law the same year. The act established the state’s Local Journalism Task Force and gave the task force a mandate to produce a report with policy recommendations, including legislative remedies, within a year. As of August 2023, three seats on the task force remain unfilled.

Bills Proposing Mandated Allocation of Advertising Expenditures

Two bills have proposed directing state agencies to direct half of advertising expenditures to local media organizations, and one bill has proposed requiring platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay news publications a portion of advertising revenue generated by the sharing of news content on their sites. As of July 2023, state legislatures have not passed any bills mandating advertising expenditures to local media.

Bills Requiring Payment from Digital Platforms

One bill in California has proposed requiring platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay publishers for content. The California Journalism Competition and Preservation Act would require platforms to pay news publishers a portion of their advertising revenue quarterly. The bill has been placed on hold until 2024 when it will be carried over into the second half of the current legislative session. The bill is similar to the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) introduced in both chambers of Congress in 2021. The JCPA was referred to committee in the House and Senate but was not voted on by either chamber.

A few things stand out from the bills cataloged in our tracker.

First, directing government funds to local news is the most commonly proposed method of support proposed in state legislation. Bills proposing appropriating funds for local news typically propose those dollars be distributed through an intermediary rather than move directly from the state to newsrooms, potentially avoiding concerns about potential state interference in editorial decisions.

Fellowship programs appear particularly popular, particularly within the past year. In total, approximately $27.5 million have been appropriated by state legislatures to support fellowship programs for local journalists. The success of these programs, either in legislative support or in improving the fate of local news, could lead to similar proposals in other states.

Second, despite the increased introduction of local news legislation and passage of funding for fellowship programs, partisanship might play a role in which states are willing to enact legislation to support local news and which are not. Democrats have sponsored the majority of bills to support local news though in a couple of cases, Republicans have sponsored bills that would provide tax incentives to individuals and small businesses.

Finally, there is increasing interest among state legislatures in supporting local news media. Between 2017 and 2022, twenty-four bills had been introduced that included support for local news. In 2023 alone, 12 bills were introduced that did so. Put another way, one-third of all legislative proposals to support local news were introduced in just this year. In addition, of the nine legislatures where legislation was introduced this year, four had not previously considered such legislation.

Although it is not a fix for all the challenges faced by local news media, advocates may find some optimism and opportunity in this growing interest among state legislatures. Going forward, it will be important to define ways to measure the impact of these policy interventions and evaluate their effectiveness in supporting intended outcomes of promoting civic engagement and democracy.