LOCAL NEWS IS IN DIRE STRAITS. In a quest for profit, publishers have gutted newsrooms and hollowed out coverage of local communities. As the industry struggles to build the business model of the future, it’s missing an opportunity to embrace a funding mechanism that can enshrine journalism as a public service: the special service district.
The United States currently hosts more than 30,000 special service districts, which fund everything from local fire departments and water infrastructure projects to sanitation services and hospitals. Special service districts are paid for by taxes or annual fees assessed in a geographic area; and, in turn, they deliver services to the communities that fund them. They can be created by town councils or voted into existence via referendum.
During the past year, my colleagues and I at Community Information Districts worked to lay the foundation for a special service district model for local journalism. Journalists we spoke with were intrigued by the idea, though some become apprehensive when asked to view the proposal as a taxpayer. But we also spoke with taxpayers, who were generally receptive.
At a series of New Jersey community forums on improving local media across the state, those residents in attendance understood the model and supported the mission. The community news and information needs raised at these events can be met, but not every community can currently support viable business models to meet those needs. That’s where a community information district (CiD) comes in.
MY HOMETOWN OF FAIR LAWN, New Jersey, has a population of 32,000 people. An annual $40 contribution per household could deliver a $500,000 operating budget to a newsroom devoted to understanding and serving the local news and information needs of its community.
That budget could support print or online newspapers, or livestreaming town council meetings. A special service district for local journalism could convene community forums or media literacy classes, launch a text message and email alert system, or pay for chatbots that answer locally relevant questions, like “Is alternate side parking in effect?”
Access to news and information is key to democratic governance. The CiD model offers a financial engine for sustainable and radically local journalism.
Each community could shape its own information district through a needs assessment or a targeted engagement campaign. To prevent political interference, a board of trustees made up of residents and community stakeholders, could oversee their local CiD. Communities could allocate funding through a participatory budgeting process, and hold regular referendums to determine whether or not it should reauthorize the CiD.
Community information districts are not a cure-all, and there are obstacles to establishing them. Some communities might resist the notion of an additional tax. Others may not have the tax base to support such services in the first place. We are still looking for solutions to these issues, but they are not insurmountable. Next year, my colleagues and I plan to release a guide to help communities establish their own CiDs and navigate variations in state law. The guide will also establish good governance guidelines, offer samples of legislative language, and outline best practices in local journalism and community information for CiDs.
Access to news and information is key to democratic governance. The CiD model offers a financial engine for sustainable and radically local journalism, which supports the regional and national press in turn. It provides a direct financial incentive for journalists to leave the coasts, deeply engage their communities, and prioritize the impact of their work above pageviews. CiDs could revitalize and sustain local news, rebuild trust, and increase civic engagement across the country.