Prologue: A bad year and two counties

This fall, Washington State saw the worst voter turnout ever. This could be surprising for advocates of Washington’s unique and open system of voting. In Washington, there is a ballot mailed to every registered voter, free-at-point-of-service ballot return, numerous free ballot drop boxes, same day voter registration, and many other progressive improvements to our voting system. Yet, our voter turnout (especially in odd-year, local-only elections) has been trending down.

Yet also, those improvements in our voting system have not been happening in a vacuum. Other forces have been forcing voter turnout down, and in fact, voter turnout would be falling faster and much lower if not for mail-in ballots and same day voter registration.

Many mark the decline of newspapers starting in 2005. This is about a half-decade before Washington’s vote-by-mail system was solidified statewide, and it illustrates the decline in our civic culture, while we were also 

My personal thesis on the act of voting is that it is about information, not access. While access to the ballot may be constrained in some places, it isn’t here (generally). What we are lacking, are lacking in larger amounts each year, is access to information on what is on the ballot. With each economic contraction in the last few decades, newspapers have continued to suffer. Historically, newspapers provide the most information for voters on what is on their local ballots. Even with local television and radio, they lack the market penetration and depth of reporting that is needed to cover Federal Way politics the same way Seattle City Council or statewide issues are covered. 

We can see the impact what remains of our media has on local voter turnout. Take the comparison between Thurston and Whatcom counties. Both counties are mid-sized in population for Washington counties and are on the I-5 corridor along Puget Sound in the suburban crescent of Seattle. Voter turnout in Thurston was below 40 percent. This wasn’t the lowest in recent history, but was in the neighborhood. Whatcom County was a statewide leader in turnout, breaking 50 percent, which was the highest of any county that wasn’t significantly smaller.

Both counties also had similar political landscapes this year. Both had public safety taxes on the ballot, both had important county-wide races. 

What separates Thurston from Whatcom was the level of media coverage available in either community. Olympia has one daily newspaper, and no other significant locally-based news producers.

Whatcom County has two local newspapers (the Bellingham Herald and the Cascadia Daily News). Even though both the Olympian and Herald are owned by the same hedge fund, it seems that the Herald in slightly smaller Whatcom County has more reporters than the Olympian (five compared to three). 

Whatcom County also has a local radio newsroom (KGMI). This is something Thurston County hasn’t had since KGY shut down their newsroom decades ago. 

This is a mostly back of the napkin analysis. Surely the existence of a local city club in Whatcom (no like organization exists in Thurston) and the particulars of campaign spending had an impact. But, from my point of view, the beefier media available in Whatcom likely had a significant difference in voter turnout. 

So what remains in front of us, is how to fund a repair in local media.

Why Washington needs a publicly funded Civic Information Network to address the local journalism crisis

Last year, the Washington State League of Women Voters correctly identified the most pressing issue facing our civic culture in Washington State. In their report “The Decline of Local News and Its Impact on Democracy,” the League authors pointed to the sharp decline in the sustainability of local news organizations across Washington. Washington State communities are indeed in a journalism crisis, with rural communities being hit especially hard.

The analysis of the league falls short, though, when it came to describing what kind of public policy solutions are going to allow Washington communities to lead themselves out of the local news crisis. While it describes the opinion of those currently leading legacy news organizations that public funding is not necessary, it does not delve deeply into public funding examples currently being explored in other states.

This white paper will expand on the interview of Robert McChesney in the LWV report and an effort in New Jersey for publicly funded local journalism. I will also point out that Washington not only already publicly funds journalism, I will also propose that we copy at least one example of state legislature permitted funding. By using state funding models already used in Washington State, we can also create a system that maximizes local decision-making and community buy-in.

Background: Supporting Emergent Non-profit News Organizations

The approach to the crisis in local journalism in Washington State has been limited. The only policies of note passed by the legislature were to extend an already existing Business and Operation tax exemption and establish a journalism fellowship program.

This public policy approach does not mesh with the broader approach to how the local journalism crisis is being address nationwide. A cut in the B&O tax benefits legacy news organizations that are structured as for-profit organizations and were part of (or subject to) the mass decline in local media in recent decades. The new organizations that have been founded to address the need created by the local news crisis have largely been non-profit in structure. They do not benefit from a cut in a tax they already do not pay.

Washington State should invest in a public funding system for local news organizations. This system should be built on an opt-in basis on the county level. It should represent a willingness of local leaders to address the local news crisis.

Washington State already has an example of direct public funding in journalism, though it oftentimes escapes notice. While the statehouse news corp has collapse in recent years, the public funding of TVW has continued to allow average Washingtonians unfettered access to the legislative process and other events on the state-government level. TVW provides much more than gavel-to-gavel coverage of the state legislature. They provide some of the most valuable and in-depth coverage of state government in the state. According to TVW’s most recent federal non-profit filing, over 80 percent of their funding comes directly from state government. Even if there is a bright line between funds they use to produce “gavel-to-gavel” coverage and money for shows like “Inside Olympia” or “The Impact,” the more journalistic efforts of TVW obviously benefit from the larger institution built with government funds.

Every state budget passed since the formation of TVW includes a passage similar to this one:

“The legislature finds that the commitment of on-going funding is necessary to ensure continuous, autonomous, and independent coverage of public affairs. For that purpose, the secretary of state shall enter into a contract with the nonprofit organization to provide public affairs coverage.

The legislature should expand this commitment to “continuous, autonomous, and independent coverage of public affairs” from state government to every level of government across the State of Washington.

Public funding for local journalism would also put a focus on supporting local media for Washington’s non-profit and philanthropic communities. Currently, there are a handful of funds to support local journalism in Washington State (I found examples in Kitsap, King, Snohomish, Pierce and Yakima counties). All of these easily found examples fund only one-for profit and (mostly chain owned) media organization.

We are choosing to support organizations that have survived the wildfire, rather than the new green shoots of growth. We are working to sustain the organizations that were old and wealthy enough to make it survive, so far. Along the same lines, we are choosing communities that have enough wealth to support a for-profit news organization. Many of the communities have become news deserts in the last couple of decades tend to be poorer and more rural. It should not matter where you live for you to get reliable news about your government.

While supporting any local media outlet is laudable, we should find resources to support any local journalism organization, not just a legacy for-profit media organization.

Proposal: Sustainable Support for all local news

This proposal is based largely on the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. Similar to TVW, the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium is a non-profit organization that receives funding directly from the New Jersey state government on an annual basis. Unlike TVW, the NJCI distributes those funds to other news organizations to produce local coverage.

For example, in 2022, the NCJI funded: 

  • coLab (New Brunswick/Middlesex County) received a $40,000 grant for a program that will create a new community memory project in the Esperanza and Unity Square neighborhoods of New Brunswick. coLab and New Brunswick Tomorrow, in collaboration with Esperanza, a community-based Spanish-language creative storytelling project, are developing this initiative.
  • The Hammonton Gazette (Hammonton/Atlantic County) received e $35,000 grant to support freelance reporters who will cover municipal meetings in news deserts within Atlantic County and Camden County. This grant is awarded to the Gazette as a new funding opportunity, following their previous receipt of a first-round grant.

In the most recent state budget, the Washington legislature allowed up to $4 million in direct state funding to TVW. The most recent outlay to the NJCI was only $1 million. But these funds were spread across New Jersey to benefit communities of all sizes. 

Neither the NCJI nor the state government have any ownership of projects funded through the NCJI. Structurally, the NCJI is housed at a local media institute at Montclair State University and is a consortium of Montclair and five other state owned universities. The NCJI is governed by a board of 16, including the six member universities. Other board members include appointments by state legislative caucuses, the state governor, private industry and the public.

Community-based, Washington-centric

A Washington State Civic Information Network could very well copy New Jersey’s top-heavy, statewide approach. This “full-stack” approach could involve TVW as an organizing entity, the state library and also the six, public four-year higher education institutions. Much like the NCJI, this statewide organization would accept funding requests statewide and distribute the funds through a simple grant program.

But Washington and New Jersey are two very different states. New Jersey is about 20 percent the physical size of Washington, with more than 2 million more people. Washington includes many more rural communities and would likely benefit from a more diffused funding and decision-making structure to support local journalism.

Fittingly, there are Washington State based example of local project funding that may generate more buy-in, especially in rural communities that have been the hardest hit by the journalism crisis. Each of these examples are ways we can devolve decision-making or funding to the local level, allowing for the highest level of public buy-in statewide.

Salmon recovery lead entities

Washington’s approach to salmon recovery is a model for this bottom up, state-level approach. Funding for salmon recovery projects begin on the watershed level. Proposals are first vetted by so-called “Salmon Recovery Lead Entities.” After they are ranked locally, final funding decisions are made by the statewide Salmon Recovery Funding Board. Normally, the top project in each watershed is funded. Subsequently, ranked projects are then funded, depending on funding available at the statewide level. 

This option assumes a direct funding allocation from the state government that would be split across the state. In the salmon recovery example, a local non-profit or government entity steps up to become the “lead entity” to lead the public process of soliciting and vetting grants.

Housing and arts state/local funding

In recent years, the state legislature has allowed local governments to establish taxes to support housing (SHB 1416 in 2019) and the arts (SHB 2263 in 2015). While the former housing tax can be instituted on the council or commission level, the funding for the arts requires a vote of the people. Both are examples of a local community deciding on their own (either through an elected representative or directly through an election) that support for housing or the arts is a public need.

Both of these example also feature a grant-vetting decision process through a local board of some kind. This kind of local, transparent decision-making allow for decision-making to be made by the people most impacted and benefited by increased coverage. Like the salmon recovery example, local community funds, library districts or general local governments could step forward to lead the grant process.

Digital Advertising Tax

A suitable way to pay for local journalism is to tax the activity that is doing the most damage to the traditional ways of funding local journalism. Newspapers used to be the most effective ways to target customers in a local geography. But, with the advent of targeted digital advertising, only the most civic-minded and lose with money advertisers would choose a local newspaper over the Meta and Alphabet advertising platforms. However we choose to distribute public funds towards journalism, using a digital advertising tax would level the playing field by directing funds towards diverse news organizations, promoting a healthier media ecosystem.

It would act as a way to hold dominant digital advertising platforms responsible for the harms caused by their targeted advertising model, such as the spread of misinformation and data misuse. By taking a share of their profits, it incentivizes platforms to address these issues.

Maryland instituted a first-in-the-nation digital advertising tax in 2021. It is being challenged at both the state and local level, but it still in effect.

Conclusion: We need to pay for it

We have the examples and tools to fund local journalism in Washington, while also providing a firebreak between government and their watch dogs. TVW provides an example of state funding of journalism in Washington. The NCJI shows us how another state built a statewide grant program to fund many journalism efforts. By copying examples in salmon recovery, housing and the arts, we can even move the funding from statewide to organizations making funding decisions on a hyper-local level. 

As we continue through the journalism crisis, communities are finding new solutions to address their needs. These solutions are largely non-profit and digital first. While our legislature has addressed the crisis through a tax cut and fellowship program, these measures are initial steps that should be followed up with more direct funding.