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Could Oregon Duplicate A Bold New California State Initiative To Fund Journalism?

In October, before the election, I covered a story about election deniers and claims of voting irregularities in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

It focused on residents who were going door-to-door to “clean the voting rolls” and road-show election deniers sowing distrust in local elections. All the while, academics and county clerks did their best to debunk these claims. In one case in Shasta County, the clerk notified state and federal authorities of the possibility of intimidation because of self-styled voter integrity groups targeting individuals in their homes.

There are many causes for this fractured civic reality we’re living through today, but one reason is the disappearance of trusted sources of information. There are no longer agreed upon facts when we’re all stuck in individual echo chambers.

In 2022, the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon’s journalism school released a report titled “Assessing Oregon’s Local News and Information Ecosystem.” It was an effort to measure the value of local news to our civic health by mapping local outlets around the state that regularly produce original news. “The civic health of communities is connected to the availability and quality of local news,” the report reads. It identifies growing news deserts around Oregon, as well as the headwinds many local newsrooms face today. To cite one example from the report: “daily circulation of the Eugene Register-Guard reportedly dropped from nearly 80,000 in the year 2000 to under 20,000 in early 2022.” The report also noted a number of recent innovative journalism startups, including nonprofit websites like Underscore and the Oregon Capital Chronicle that freely share content, and collaborations between newsrooms to scale up coverage of important issues like the state governor’s race. But there’s another experiment that is beginning to take shape across the border in California: major state investments in local media.

Announced in September, the California legislature is funding a $25 million fellowship program meant to strengthen local reporting in underserved areas across the state. The money will fund up to 40 fellows per year for at least three years. The goal is to create new journalism jobs in California in communities in need of local reporting. “The program aims to strengthen local reporting across the state and to combat the gaps in credible local news coverage that have been filled by disinformation,” according to the legislation’s sponsor Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Contra Costa.

The program will be administered by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, which has made major efforts in recent years to attract a more diverse faculty and student population through tuition support in an effort to expand the field of who gets to be a journalist. (Incidentally, I earned a master’s degree from the UC Berkeley J-School in 2014.)

This concept is not entirely new. The nonprofit Report for America started in 2017 with the goal of putting early-career journalists in local newsrooms “to report on under-covered issues and communities.” In 2022 RFA funded 300 reporter positions around the country. The yet-to-be-named California program will fund a fraction of that number, but according to the Berkeley J-School, it is thought to be “the largest state allocation ever made in California and in the U.S. to support local journalism.”

Public radio and public television have long-received support from the federal government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At JPR, about 10% of our budget comes from CPB on an annual basis. But as journalism is increasingly being seen as a public good and an essential element of a working democracy, the push for government funding local media is also growing. In 2021, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support. That year Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden helped introduce the same legislation in the Senate. The bills would support news organizations and subscribers through a series of tax credits. But, let’s be honest, given how few bills Congress can agree upon these days, it’s unlikely federal legislation will provide a solution.

California’s new experiment to support local journalism could be duplicated in Oregon. The 2023 Oregon legislative session begins in mid-January. While California’s budget is orders of magnitude larger than Oregon’s, even a fraction of California’s $25 million investment could help put reporters in communities that the Agora Journalism Center report identifies as being on the verge of becoming news deserts, including Crook, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Klamath, Lake, Morrow, Sherman, Wallowa and Wheeler counties.

One way or another, Oregon citizens will have access to information. It might come from bold, new journalism startups. But it could also come from unverified Nextdoor rumor-mills, opinion blogs masquerading as journalism, or worse, intentional misinformation from traveling election deniers.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.