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Friday, February 23, 2024
Local Journalism Press Conference

Alex Frandsen from Free Press Action speaks along with Rep. Jimmy Anderson and Sen. Mark Spreitzer at a press conference introducing a bill supporting Local Journalism Jan. 30.

Democratic bills address news deserts in Wisconsin

In a Tuesday press conference, Democratic lawmakers announced a package of bills to address the ongoing decline of local journalism in Wisconsin.

Democratic lawmakers unveiled a series of bills Thursday to boost local journalism in rural communities. 

The bill package — introduced by Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg; Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire; and Sen. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit — includes a tax credit for newspaper subscriptions, a fellowship program and a new governing body to award grants for news access projects. 

“Local newspapers are a critical part of how I, as a legislator, stay informed about local issues across my district,” Spreitzer said. “This package will strengthen local news and help the people of Wisconsin stay informed and build stronger communities.”

The package includes an income tax credit to help cover the cost of local news subscriptions. The tax credit would cover half the cost of a subscription, up to a total of $250 per taxpayer. 

Additionally, the package creates a Journalism Fellowship Program administered by the University of Wisconsin System to pair aspiring journalists with mentors in local newsrooms. 

The package would establish a nonprofit organization, The Wisconsin Civic Information Consortium, to award grants for projects that support “the state’s civic information needs.” Allocated by the UW System, these funds would prioritize projects that cultivate media literacy or increase local news access in news deserts. 

News deserts occur when no journalistic publication is covering a community, rural or urban, creating limited access to credible and comprehensive news. 

Since 2005, more than a quarter of newspapers nationwide have shut down, stranding a fifth of Americans in news deserts, according to a Northwestern University report. Over that time, employment in local journalism has declined by nearly two-thirds

Anderson praised the package for recognizing news deserts as “disproportionately located in rural areas, low-income areas and in communities of color.” 

While local news continues to struggle, media ownership has consolidated as local outlets merge with larger corporations. For example, the media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group owns nearly 200 TV news stations, reaching nearly 40% of Americans.

In Wisconsin, seven of the most circulated local newspapers, such as the La Crosse Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal, are owned by a single corporation — Lee Enterprises.

According to a study from Cambridge University, the consolidation of media ownership has led to declining coverage of local issues and an increased fixation on national politics. This lack of local perspectives has fueled political polarization and decreased accountability for local officials

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Alex Frandsen from Free Press Action, an organization aimed at empowering racial justice across media, argued a lack of local news leaves people detached from their communities

“The less we know about our neighbors, the less we know about our lawmakers, the less we know about our communities, the more disconnected and disempowered we become,” Frandsen said. 

Anderson assured the bill contained measures designed to protect journalistic independence and would not manipulate funding to exercise editorial control. 

“The goal is for journalists to hold us accountable,” Anderson said. “If the money was at all able to be controlled by the legislators themselves, my concern is that it would influence the editorial process, and so there are a lot of roadblocks to safeguard freedom of the press.”

The bill was submitted on Tuesday and is currently working its way through the Assembly.

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