In an effort to bolster journalism — and, therefore, democracy — California is undertaking an interesting experiment. Gov. Gavin Newsom this month signed into law a fellowship program that will place more than 100 graduating journalism students in three-year jobs at news outlets across the state.
The Seattle Times reports that the initiative has sparked interest across Washington. State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines and Senate president pro tempore, said she “thought that sounded like something Washington state could do.” Bruce Pinkleton, dean of Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, said: “This is something we would love to see happen … for the benefit of democracy across our state.”
The $25 million program will fund fellowships that pay $50,000 per year and send employees to “news deserts,” where local journalism has been lost or is struggling to survive. “Journalism and democracy are both in a fragile state,” one California lawmaker told the Times. “Stabilizing one firms up another. My hope is to energize newsrooms across California with vibrant independent watchdog journalism that keeps elected officials accountable and restores faith in news and democracy.”
Clark County has a daily newspaper that is locally owned. Many communities are not so fortunate. Since 2005, more than 2,000 newspapers across the country have closed; in many cases, that leaves nobody to report on the local city council or efforts to reduce homelessness or proposals for building a bridge.
Studies have shown that the lack of reliable local news leads to declining voter participation, corruption in business and government, and the spread of false information. Rumors found on social media are poor substitutes for a news outlet that is held accountable by the community.
Indeed, there are inextricable ties between democracy and reliable news. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
But the California initiative warrants scrutiny. As Jeffrey M. McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University, wrote in an opinion piece for The Hill: “The fact that the government established this program and funds it automatically reduces its function as journalism. … This initiative needs to be labeled for what it really is — an unabashed effort to push certain news agendas into communities.”
That seems presumptuous, and McCall claims to know with certainty what the journalists will and will not write about. But it does raise important questions.
Indeed, journalism must remain independent of government, and public funding for the fourth estate could be abused to influence the media.
For our part, The Columbian has launched a Community Funded Journalism program, allowing private donations to support local journalism. An explanation at Columbian.com reads: “The Columbian editors will maintain editorial independence over all stories. No donors will know what specific stories the reporters are pursuing, nor will they see stories before they’re published.”
That is one approach to keeping the public informed, and now California is weighing in on the importance of journalism.
As one lawmaker in that state told The Seattle Times: “You can’t sit on the sidelines, see the deterioration of journalism, see the fraying our of our democratic institutions and not try to do something about it.”