Concept Paper: Community Media Meets Public Service Journalism

Community Media Meets Public Service Journalism
Creating a Civic Information Hub for Yolo County
By Autumn Labbé-Renault, Executive Director, Davis Media Access

Updated April 2024

This is a vision for a project that seeks to bring together an award-winning noncommercial community
media center in Davis, CA with other local news and culture resources, including student-run newspapers
and podcasts; a community arts/culture/entertainment newspaper, and a once-robust local newspaper—
all in the service of a community and its citizens’ information needs.

Generally, this would be a new source of community and civic information about Davis/Yolo, drawing on
the strengths and needs of people in the community, and available to all. We don't see this as a
commercial venture; we do see it as a supplement to existing local sources of information. How this
would work or function, or how it would be funded, are questions we hope to answer through our
exploration phase, but we envision a three-year runway to get the project up and running in Davis in Year
1, with expansion to covering other important news in Yolo County beginning in Year 2.

Status of work to date

I’ve spent the past couple of months doing an initial assessment of the concept
through a series of high-level meetings. I’ve met with journalists and editors, elected officials, foundation
staff, and nonprofit and community leaders. There’s a handful of these meetings to complete, with
educators, librarians, university representatives, and CEOs. I’m in the process of securing support and
financial contributions from a county supervisor and Davis City Council, which I’ll then leverage towards
rounding up the rest of the funding for a planning grant. That grant will support a deep community
information needs assessment in Davis and in Yolo County’s other three cities, which will in turn provide
data to support and inform the pitch for project funding.

I was also invited to join the Community Media Center (CMC) Working Group, a project of the Future for
Local News coalition. We had our first meeting on Feb. 29, and will meet every two weeks to articulate
CMCs role in the revisioned ecosystem for local news and information.

About Davis Media Access (DMA)
Davis Media Access (DMA) was originally incorporated as public access channel Davis Community
Television (DCTV) in 1988. For many years, DCTV operated a single channel and provided a range of
services centered on one-to-one training, group workshops, and college internships.

In 1997 DCTV was awarded management of Davis Joint Unified School District’s educational access
channel and resources. In 2004, we were the first public access center in the nation to launch a Low-
Power FM (LPFM) radio station, and in 2007, we rebranded to better reflect our growing media options.
Learn more about our mission, our work, and recent recognition at

I. Changing community, changing priorities
Davis, California is a small city of about 68,000 located at the northern end of California’s Central Valley,
about 13 miles west of the capital of Sacramento. Home to the University of California at Davis, the city
has a strong history of environmental activism, sustainable agriculture, and consumer co-ops. Many of its
citizens are employed by either the university or the state, while an increasing number work in the San
Francisco Bay Area. Surrounded by agricultural buffers in all directions, the Latino community has grown
exponentially, yet there exists little Spanish-language media in Yolo County.

Davis has changed a great deal in recent years. Still largely adherent to slow-growth policies and with a
chronically low stock of affordable and available housing, our community has been losing families with
school-aged children, leading to a gradual decline in K-12 enrollment in local schools. Homelessness has
sharply increased, with frequent interactions between the unhoused and local business owners.

Once thought of as an impervious bubble, crime has risen dramatically in Davis as well. Last summer, our
city weathered a serial killer who targeted members of the unhoused community. Drug trafficking has
sharply increased, and this fall, Davis made national headlines for its role in the culture wars being waged
by “Moms for Liberty” against the transgender community and its allies, particularly local libraries,
schools and educators. Last fall, a total of eight bomb threats over several weeks closed down the Davis
branch library and several surrounding school sites.

And yet, this is a community that has rallied in tremendous ways as well. From Healthy Davis Together, a
nationally recognized town and gown partnership between the City of Davis and UC Davis to reduce the
spread of COVID-19 and help facilitate a safe, gradual return to city and campus life in Davis; to
standout City ARPA funding for arts and culture nonprofits, to Northern California’s biggest free Pride
event, Davis is a community that works diligently to steward its resources.

Much has also changed in the media landscape, and in the words of KDRT Host and Producer Bill
Buchanan, “while not yet a news desert, Davis is in fact, becoming quite dry.” The Davis Enterprise, a
venerable local newspaper owned by the McNaughton family, now prints its editions in Fairfield, about
30 miles to the southwest, where the McNaughtons own another paper. The Enterprise has also
consolidated its administrative offices to Fairfield. Its paid circulation, including print and digital, has
fallen below 4,500. Its reporting and editing staff, although still focused on Davis, is a fraction of what it
was 10 to 15 years ago. Now printed just three days per week, the Enterprise simply does not have the
resources to adequately cover much that happens in our community.

As a result, we’re not fully informed about the many building projects happening across town, or the
work of various civic commissions, or the concerns of the nonprofit community. Local arts organizations,
nonprofits and churches are calling DMA in increasing numbers, because The Enterprise can no longer
publish their press releases. The Enterprise does some things really well, but it’s struggling as nearly all
local papers are, and the majority of community events are going unreported, which leaves the
community less informed, less connected, and less cohesive.

We do have a vibrant monthly arts/culture/entertainment community newspaper, The Dirt Davis, as well
as The California Aggie, a student-run newspaper at UC Davis, but neither focuses on daily news and
information. The regional paper of record, The Sacramento Bee, is owned by a hedge fund, and has
shrunk considerably and retreated from covering outlying communities. The long-standing weekly
alternative Sacramento News & Review, which used to have newsstands all over Davis, transitioned to a
digital-only weekly newsletter. With the exception of a Russian-language radio station and website, the
culturally diverse port city of West Sacramento is a news desert, and altogether, this dearth of civic
information is deeply concerning for a county adjacent to the state capital of Sacramento.

II. The decline of journalism, and community media at a crossroads
Much has been written about the decline of journalism in this country, and with it, an immeasurable loss
in dispassionate, fact-based, independent and accountable reporting. Far less has been written about
another media system: what most call Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access television, and
what DMA refers to as noncommercial community media, since our version in Davis includes Low-Power
FM radio.

Thanks to public policy codified in the federal Cable Act of 1984, there have been provisions in place for
the past four decades to provide the public with access to media tools and technology. Where they exist,
community media centers offer use of these, as well as training, and provide learning opportunities
including summer camps and hands-on volunteering. By and large, our mission has been to help those in
our community to build critically needed skills, to tell their stories, and to foster a sense of inclusiveness
and belonging. Our mission is one of community service.

But the same rate of change that has driven advances in media technology has also sidelined the once-
dominant technology of cable, and with it, cable franchise fees that largely fund community media are in
steep decline. That decline was hastened by the pandemic, which saw people cut the cord and turn to
streaming services in record numbers. It’s important to note that despite emerging efforts in
Massachusetts to have streaming service providers assessed fees in the ways cable companies are, there
exists no replacement at this point in time. Absent strong policy level at the federal level, community
media is, quite frankly, on the precipice of going dark.

It is not “just” the decline of cable franchise fees. Never funded at anywhere near the level public media
has been, community media is by and large a constellation of small nonprofits serving communities and
jurisdictions across the country. Our numbers are already decimated thanks to telecom industry-
sponsored legislation that has sought to undermine our funding.

In California, for example, the Digital Infrastructure Video Competition Act (DIVCA) of 2006 eliminated
the right of municipalities to negotiate one-to-one with cable companies for public benefits in exchange
for access to the public rights of way. Driven by Verizon and AT&T in the guise of “good for
competition,” the legislation afforded telecom companies with easy entry to providing video services,
free from the burdens of negotiation, while simultaneously depriving municipalities of the right to
negotiate for a suite of community benefits. HR 3557, a bill currently moving through the House, seeks
to cancel cable franchise agreements nationwide while purporting to be about furthering broadband.

Last year DMA negotiated what might well be our last-ever multi-year contract with the City of Davis. We
have a positive relationship with the City (which operates its own government access channel), but like
us, they are facing the specter of declining cable funding. Representing over 60 percent of DMA’s annual
funding, cable franchise fees and capital monies greatly determine our ability to serve the community.

It is prudent to expect that inside of three years, this funding source may be gone, or at least diminished
to a point where it represents a minor part of DMA’s funding. Less funding there means we are forced to
stretch our capacity by developing and carrying out other income-generating projects. The result is a
changed mission and a different set of priorities. Even now, we serve the community primarily through
strategic partnerships with nonprofits and community institutions, with much less emphasis on services
for individuals.

DMA is hardly alone in this struggle. In Issues in Contemporary American Journalism (Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2023 )
Antoine Haywood and Victor Pickard’s chapter on “Public Access Television: An Untapped Resource for Local News,” lays
out the historical roots of public access television as a mechanism for social activism, while also delving
into the existing perceived chasm between the quality of journalism and that of the services public
access has traditionally provided. They also account for their shared struggles: relevance and viable
economic support at a time when the entire media landscape has shifted and the public’s trust in media
has never been lower.

III. What, exactly, is a Civic Information Hub, and why do we need it here?
The COVID-19 pandemic sharply shifted DMA’s work and focus, and provided us with opportunities to
shine while serving our community in new ways. These included:
• Technological and staff support for nonprofit virtual events
• Remote programming on both DCTV and KDRT that allowed us to ramp up how many local voices
and perspectives we featured during this time
• Provision of critically relevant local news and information
• Successful advocacy for nonprofit arts and culture sector funding

With all these changes in mind and the concept of perhaps launching a community journalism project, I
met with Davis resident jesikah maria ross late last summer. We discussed her early work in community
media; her former role directing participatory media projects at Capital Public Radio; her role as part of
the Future of Local News project; her upcoming gig teaching Civic Media at Boston University, and how
the outcomes from another project, the Roadmap for Local News , are already changing philanthropic
giving around this topic.

We also discussed concrete strategies to give shape to not only what could be the future of journalism,
but in large part the future of community media in Davis. Her biggest piece of advice was that we steer
clear of using the term community journalism, and focus on developing a Civic Information Hub aimed at
redefining and reinvigorating reporting, and strengthening how civic information is shared.

The terminology and thinking around new practices is coalescing around something called Civic
Information Hubs (CIH). This concept isn’t simply about funding local news differently. Though the loss or
diminishment of the fourth estate in our communities has been devastating and has rippled deeply, even
magically restoring former levels of funding wouldn’t address a key issue: the ways in which people
consume and share information have radically changed, and the old ways alone can’t meet what
communities need. And a central problem with the collapse of journalism is that instead of trained
professionals reporting facts, we have apps such as X, Facebook and NextDoor where rumor,
unsubstantiated information, speculation and fake news rule the day.

But the core issue is that people’s information needs are not being met. That’s a civic information
problem—a civic health problem, if you will—and it’s crippling the way communities can address public

IV. From The Roadmap for Local News:

A new practice is emerging from the local news and information crisis, one that holds the possibility of
restoring, and even improving, the civic health of our communities. It should have these goals:
• Coordinate around the goal of expanding “civic information,” not saving the news business
• Directly invest in the production of civic information
• Invest in shared services to sustain new and emerging civic information networks; and
• Cultivate and pass public policies that support the expansion of civic information while
maintaining editorial independence

This “civic media” practice carries forward the most valuable traditions of American broadcast and
newspaper journalism by dedicating itself to informing the public, elevating voices, and impacting public
policy and the processes of self-government. It also builds on that legacy by transforming who produces
journalism and how they produce it, expanding journalism’s forms, and sharpening the definition of what
it is for.

Ross notes, "Where the funding is going and will be available; and where the need is, and where the
mission is—if you had those three as a Venn diagram—in the middle is public service, and to provide
that there are going to be some criteria for it. How do we know people want and need this information?
How do we know the best way to reach them? How do we know where or on what platform, or in what
languages? There will be a need to design programs and allocate resources based on that.”

She says, “All the different players will need to do their thing to keep their individual missions, but the
shared mission will be around this idea of civic information. This is why DMA needs to be the lead
agency because of all the potential players, DMA has the mission that is most service oriented.
Community media is fundamentally about building more connected, cohesive and resilient communities
through media making, and meaning making from that.“

V. Building a Civic Information Hub in Davis
There’s currently much being written about CIHs that centers around an online portal as a community
hub with information pushed out by through libraries, community organizations, community meetings,
and perhaps small-run print publications. I believe we have the momentum, considerable tangible
resources, and opportunity to create a truly innovative framework here in Davis, one that could be
replicated in community media centers across the country:

• Use the existing media resources at Davis Media Access, which include: HD television studio and
control room; community radio studio; a system for checking out equipment to community
members, and operating systems custom developed using Linux-based open source programs.
DMA’s cable and radio programming is available on demand and archived online.
• Use the planned media resources at DMA, where remodel planning is under way for a multi-purpose
media lab, and a podcasting and audio production studio.
• Utilize the human resources at DMA: a highly trained and innovative staff; committed board;
longtime volunteers including community members, and high-school and college interns, and
journalistic expertise at board, staff, and volunteer levels.
• Use the existing and already mapped community resources (print publications, libraries, nonprofits,
schools) as both assets for training and conduits for sharing community information. Link this all to a
website specific to this work.
• Utilize DMA’s deep networks throughout the community and county to assess our own roadmap for a
CIH project here. DMA is already deeply connected and respected not only in Davis, but in other
areas of the county as well, and that’s a huge boon in starting this project.

How Do We Get There?
There is no shortage of local information, but there is a problem with learning how to access it, and who
to trust. The first phase would be deep, intersectional community needs assessment and listening,
conducted here in Davis and with key partners throughout the county. This would ideally be funded by a
planning grant supported by a combination of local government, a local community foundation or fund
holder and/or aligned media and democracy resources. It would begin taking place while we are
searching for larger foundational funding for the CIH itself. DMA already successfully used this strategy in
the ramp up to launching KDRT.

With proper funding, I believe we have a unique opportunity to do the following:
• Hire a managing editor and production staff to develop a process for training community members
to document community meetings and events. Citizens will play a huge role here, but there does
need to be paid staff guiding editorial and training in the basics of information gathering and
conducting interviews.
• Establish training program utilizing media lab, with trained community content producers creating
weekly live news program. Created for TV and also streamed; aired on KDRT; possibly aired out via
West Sac LPFM antenna. Content made available to print publications to fill their local content void
(possibly using transcript technology). Opportunities for reporters and other guests to appear on the
program as well, with regular interface with elected officials, police, and more.
• Assessment phase would help determine participants; aim is for diversity on multiple levels. Goal
would be to launch project in Davis and expand elsewhere in county over successive years.
• General community content or specific deep-dive projects (climate justice, sustainable agriculture,
public health, for example)—would most likely depend on funder and results from assessment.
• Much of the equipment and information infrastructure is already in place, which makes this project
not only more doable, but more affordable.

Community media centers typically have equipment and physical spaces to train community members,
but are short on operational funding. At DMA, for example, we have an FTE of just 5, serving a volunteer
population of hundreds (pre pandemic) and a community of 68,000. These centers could go a long way
towards helping to create Civic Information Hubs in the communities they serve by providing ready-
made spaces, deep community engagement, and technically trained, mission-oriented staff.

I’ve spent nearly two decades leading the team that’s built DMA into the community resource it is today.
Though my title is executive director, to do this job well means having a community engagement
mindset at all times, fueled by a sense of purpose rooted in service. Approaching the work in this way
means that I’ve connected with stakeholders all over Davis and Yolo County, taken on many leadership
roles, listened deeply, and created lasting relationships. This is the foundation for the next phase of my
work on behalf of DMA and this community.

We’re at a specific moment in time, with funding becoming available to address the aftermath of local
journalism’s decline, but relatively little materializing to address the decline of community media funding
across the country. I believe a Civic Information Hub in Davis would not only greatly benefit our
community, but could be used to create a model that could be successfully replicated in other
communities where noncommercial community media exists.