Regina Brown Wilson and Sandy Close
What could go wrong when politicians in Sacramento decide the future of journalism?
The California legislature could soon provide the answer. SB 911 — authored by Senator Steve Glazer – is the subject of a debate on how $25 million in state surplus funds should be distributed to local and ethnic journalism. If it is passed, we believe the bill would drive a stake in the heart of the independent ethnic media sector.
Ethnic media takes pride in being rooted in their communities and sounding an independent advocacy voice — accountable to the communities they serve. Back in 1827 the mission statement of Freedom Journal was proudly this: “We wish to plead our own cause, too long have others spoken for us.”
As advocates of the ethnic media sector, we work with ethnic media practitioners every day. Among our top objections to SB 911 is that it promotes a one-size-fits all model to local and ethnic journalism.
In fact, for many decades, most ethnic media have operated as for-profit businesses. You can see on the mastheads – L.A. Focus, Sentinel, Voice, Guardian, Crusader — the call to our communities. Mainstream media has often disparaged ethnic media as advocacy media, without understanding the unique role we play for our readers.
SB 911 is promoting a “nonprofit” model that would expressly forbid ethnic media from endorsing political candidates or lobbying for or against proposed legislation. It would silence them!
SB 911 establishes a board of political appointees to administer state money that would be costly and time consuming to set up and would wind up determining the criteria for how government doles out support for local journalism for years to come. Ethnic media might have two representatives on that board. But the majority on the panel would have no direct knowledge of the unique role of ethnic media or how they work. The last thing ethnic media needs are people with little experience in their communities determining what kind of media those communities need.
This scheme puts ethnic media in a competition to gain the approval of a board of political appointees. They would end up dependent on this board. In fact, they would end up dependent on grants or government agencies instead of local communities that have long supported them.
As currently written, the bill would allow media startups – including many in the nonprofit space – that have operated for only one or two year to qualify for support. This language fails to acknowledge the contributions made by established media that have worked for decades to serve their communities and sustain themselves.
SB 911 shines a spotlight on the dire straits many ethnic media find themselves in, especially following the business shutdowns from the pandemic, inflation, and a possible recession, let alone the demands of adapting to the digital world. But we’re not prepared to greenlight the bill as currently written for the sake of whatever share of the $25 million the board bestows to individual outlets after their own admin costs are met.
We urge the legislature to consider far more productive ways of supporting the ethnic news sector much as it did with efforts promoting the 2020 Census when it increased the advertising dollars earmarked for ethnic media from $15 million to over $85 million, recognizing that only ethnic media could deliver truly inclusive outreach to the diverse communities that now make up the state.
Redirecting the $25 million to advertising or outreach on the many issues these communities now face is the best use of state funds. Create mandates that steer a fairer share of marketing dollars for issues like the drought, housing, wildfires, climate change, or health care to our media sector and that will reach the underserved audiences the state needs to reach, rather than wasting time and money on a costly administrative process in the name of ethnic media.
The non-profit model works well only for a small number of ethnic media news agencies; they are convenors and informers of community, they fit the category of mission driven journalism, we applaud them for their work.
But one size does not fit all media, especially given the diversity of ethnic news outlets. Don’t ask ethnic media to transform themselves into a model that reduces their interdependence with community. “Too long have others spoken for us.” That’s what SB 911 does and why we must oppose it.
About the Authors
Regina Brown Wilson is Executive Director of California Black Media, the oldest advocacy organization supporting locally-owned Black media.
Sandy Close is Director of Ethnic Media Services and former Executive Director of New America Media/Pacific News Service.