Opinion | How New York City is saving its local news agencies
At a time when nationwide newsrooms are laying off reporters and closing some, a program initiated by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has helped maintain small, independent media outlets in every corner of the city.
In May 2019, he signed an executive order that requires city agencies to direct at least half of their digital and print advertising budgets to community newspapers and websites. These media are often the most trusted sources of information in their communities. They publish in more than 30 languages in the five boroughs and serve immigrant, ethnic and religious groups, and color communities.
It is a complete success.
According to a report from the Center for Community Media at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, more than 220 of these news outlets received ads from 51 city agencies and departments totaling nearly $ 10 million in the first year of the program. During a period that spanned a census, a presidential election, and the pandemic, the ads provided an opportunity for outlets to deliver critical information to New Yorkers who do not always consume English-language news from the city’s major daily newspapers or commercial television and radio stations.
Equally important, these city ads kept small news outlets alive when their usual advertising sources – local businesses – dried up during the economic meltdown caused by the pandemic. “Without advertising from city agencies, many of us would not have survived the pandemic,” wrote 59 editors and publishers in an open letter to New York City and State officials.
And when Mr de Blasio recently announced that he would be spending $ 15 million educating residents on ranked voting, he hinted that a significant portion of these ads would be placed in community media. At least three New York mayoral candidates – Maya Wiley, Eric Adams, and Kathryn Garcia – support the use of city advertising to aid community intelligence.
Brooklyn-based Haitian Times, an online news agency, is a good example. In March 2020, “we all thought we were going out of business,” editor Garry Pierre-Pierre told the Center for Community Media’s Advertising Boost Initiative. But $ 73,489 in ad purchases from the city last year – up from $ 224 in 2019 – provided a lifeline. The Haitian Times was able to respond to the Covid-19 crisis with original coverage of the Haitian community, which has been badly hit by coronavirus cases. This story has rarely been featured in the mainstream media.
The Haitian Times also covered protests against Black Lives Matter, highlighted the black immigrant perspective largely overlooked in national coverage, and served as an information hub for stories about Haitian women and girls. “We were able to hire freelancers to increase our coverage, increase our social media director’s hours, and hire an editor-in-chief and a copy editor,” said Pierre-Pierre.
In 2013, according to research one of us did for the Center for Community Media, only 18 percent of city ads went to black, Latin American, and immigrant news outlets, despite reaching 55 percent of the city’s population. At the time, these news outlets were largely overlooked by the city agencies who ran advertising campaigns and the private companies who used them to place the advertisements. The Center for Community Media now acts as a bridge between the city’s agencies and these outlets to ensure that ad buying policies are running smoothly. The center keeps track of the advertising calendar of each city agency and works with the advertising agencies.
Community publishers are now calling on the city council to institutionalize advertising policies through law, and New York state lawmakers to pass a government spending program to this end. The center is also working with partners in Chicago and California to launch similar initiatives there. And the Biden government is on record backing a bill that would require federal agencies to include in their budget proposals how much they would spend on ads in the black, Latin American, and minority press, and on publications owned by women. There is also bipartisan support for laws that would give local news agency subscribers tax credits.
State media funding is not new. The longest standing support is through postage subsidies and legal notices in local media. And the federal government has long invested in public radio and television and related online and mobile services through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The federal government has a $ 5 billion advertising budget, so a program like New York City’s could give community news organizations a huge boost at a time when local journalism across the country is in crisis. As Penny Abernathy meticulously documented while studying at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, at least 25 percent of newspapers have disappeared since 2004, creating news deserts across the country. If cities and states choose to distribute their state advertising spending more fairly, it could have a profound impact, even without help from Washington.
Other solutions are emerging. For example, more local news outlets are considering becoming nonprofits to support their work philanthropically. Meanwhile, New York City has created a model that we know will work, that will not require new tax dollars, and that can be easily adopted in communities across the country.
Sarah Bartlett is the Dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Julie Sandorf is President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation and author of a 2020 article in The Stanford Social Innovation Review about renewing philanthropy’s commitment to local journalism.
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