This month marks 23 years that I’ve written this column in The Davis Enterprise, which has allowed me and many others to write about nonprofits, businesses, lifestyle, arts, climate, culture, and more, for decades.
I probably don’t stop often enough to feel grateful for that experience and for a hometown paper. I’d worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and publisher, and I started simply writing about the organization that was then called Davis Community Television, and what we did. But media and media technology, and the need to understand it, changed so rapidly in those two decades, and somewhere along the line I started writing about media policy and have chronicled more than 20 years of media consolidation. So, thanks, Davis Enterprise.
Over the past few years, I’ve had a couple opportunities to guest lecture to college students, and I’ve described the three systems of media that exist in this country: commercial, public and community. Broad terms, I know — The Davis Enterprise is commercial, but so is CNN. Public media — think PBS and NPR — are nonprofit, with a mix of public and private funding, generally regional in nature, and provide in-depth coverage, but government funding makes them a frequent political target.
The third is nonprofit community media, with roots in Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access television. It’s extremely local, typically serving neighborhoods, municipalities, schools, and government. It focuses on public meetings, nonprofits, schools, youth, local elections, arts and culture, events, and community voices, and plays a strong role not only in content creation, but training, access to facilities and equipment and community development.
It may also encompass radio, print, digital and broadband. It’s a media system that has thousands of local variations in thousands of communities around the country, but is often left out of federal policy discussions unless targeted by the FCC or telecom corporations.
There is incredible content that comes out of all these media systems every single day. And while larger newspapers are faring OK with online engagement and subscriptions, and the state has made some money available to news outlets during the pandemic, typically those on the smaller end struggle for survival. Many have already lost that battle.
The same is true for organizations all along the nonprofit media route — inconsistent soft funding, uncertain government funding or declining user fees make planning and building capacity difficult. So the questions are, what happens after pandemic loans and grants end? How can something so important be so underfunded? What happens if more of these local outlets go dark?
Those are questions Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, and director of its Center for Social Innovation, articulates in his recent CalMatters article calling for a revisioning of support for all community-centered media organizations (https://bit.ly/2YHMI04). In discussing the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, Ramakrishnan says the event revealed many gaping holes in the foundations of our democracy, including “the role of digital media platforms in exacerbating and weaponizing disinformation.”
He writes that even as the government is dealing with the impacts of social media, it “need(s) to pay urgent attention to investing in community media — local media as well as ‘ethnic media’ or ‘media of color’ — to build an ecosystem of reliable and trustworthy news that can serve the needs of our 21st century democracy.” He cites efforts already underway, such as the American Journalism Project’s initial fundraising goal of $50 million to provide investments and in-kind support to 35 nonprofit news organizations around the country, and Facebook’s $25 million in grants to assist more than 200 local news organizations.
He notes that these efforts, while good, are minuscule compared to the scale of the problem of local media outlets facing extinction, and the even greater risks facing media focused on communities of color. Given the enormous scope of the challenges, he writes, we need to craft a national solution that is scalable locally.
Ramakrishnan concludes with, “Perhaps (this) is where regulation and financing could meaningfully intersect. As Congress and state governments contemplate social media regulations that better serve the needs of our democracy, they should also consider financing mechanisms like media license fees and general taxes that can support the evolution and growth of community-serving media. In addition, the Biden administration’s desire to “build back better” should consider not only infrastructure projects in energy and transportation, but also the civic infrastructure of communities including reliable voting systems and trusted, well-resourced community news media.”
DMA — with our projects Davis Community Television, DJUSD.tv educational access, and KDRT Low-Power FM radio — is an example of nonprofit community media, and we’re the only such outlet in Yolo County. Our mission and our reach is big, our budget tiny, and the impacts of the pandemic on top of funding that’s already in decline due to cord cutting are real. We’ve greatly diversified our funding streams in recent years, and it is still tough to meet community need and stay whole. (That notwithstanding, I am extremely grateful to the City of Davis for its vision and longtime support of PEG media.)
Journalist Amy Goodman once told me that community media outlets are something that people would really miss if they were to disappear, and that my job here was perpetual vigilance to ensure that doesn’t happen. I’ve taken that mission seriously because I passionately believe that local media of all stripes makes for considerably more connected — and invested — communities. I agree with Ramakrishnan that it’s going to take wholesale revisioning the role of our local media, and how society supports it. What might be lost is insupportable.