NEW REPORT: Independent, Community Media Critical to San Francisco’s Democracy

Findings show urgent need to invest in community, ethnic media 

SAN FRANCISCO – Today, the City and County of San Francisco announced its plan to strengthen its relationship with and invest in community publishers and ethnic media. The plan, included in a report commissioned by San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey, emphasizes the value of community-specific media in bringing important information to the City’s diverse communities. 

The report focuses on how much the City is spending on its advertising campaigns and where that spending goes, and offers recommendations for how it can improve its reach across different language groups and demographics through advertising in community-specific media.

Notably, the report found that the City’s advertising fails to reach many communities because most of San Francisco’s ethnic and local media outlets are overlooked. Out of the 92 local and ethnic media outlets identified, the City advertises in only seven.

“Democracy can’t exist without strong independent journalism, and journalism can’t be strong or independent without thriving community- and neighborhood-based news outlets,” said Supervisor Matt Dorsey. “If San Francisco is to take seriously its commitment to supporting our diverse communities, support for community-based journalism must be an enduring part of that. Today’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s report is an important first step that’ll help inform needed changes and improvements our City can undertake to ensure that its advertising dollars not only reach their intended audiences, but more equitably support the multitude of diverse perspectives and voices a vibrant Fourth Estate requires. I’m grateful to the BLA for their excellent work on this report, and to the team at California Common Cause for their partnership in this effort.” 

All San Franciscans need and deserve reliable information about the problems that affect their everyday lives and the solutions the City proposes. With the current media infrastructure, many communities are often left out. The report, written by the San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office, demonstrates the urgent need for the City to invest in independent, community-specific media. The report also provides recommendations for how the City can increase the number of community and ethnic media vendors used by City departments.

When local community media are included in government outreach, they are empowered to pass essential information about City programs and services along to their audiences, many of whom do not read mainstream, English-only outlets.

Local news organizations throughout the country are currently struggling or on the brink of collapse, depriving residents of the critical information they need to stay connected to their communities. Historically, government departments have not prioritized awarding advertising contracts to local and ethnic media outlets, especially smaller independent ones. Data from this report support this trend. 

“We saw how the communities most at risk for Covid suffered because they did not have access to direct, reliable information due to economic, language, and social barriers. This includes elderly, non-English speaking, economically disadvantaged, and unhoused communities,” said Michael Yamashita, publisher of the Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco’s legacy LGBTQ community newspaper and website. “When the Mpox infection was increasing in the gay community, advertisements from the Department of Public Health directed at our readers helped to educate the public on how to seek treatment and stay healthy, stopping the virus from spreading to other communities.”

Research shows that a lack of support for local news contributes to increased political polarization, political corruption, and the spread of misinformation. Ethnic media outlets are recognized by the United States Census Bureau as trusted messengers for communicating with millions of “hard to reach” immigrants and communities of color. Research also shows that audiences in the United States are more likely to trust local news than national news. 

California Common Cause and the Bay Area Independent Community Media Coalition support the following recommendations from the report that would help make the City’s use of advertising and outreach dollars more equitable:

  • Hire a full-time liaison to ensure efficiency and streamlining of advertising spending. The liaison would work with City departments on how to be more effective with their spending. They would do this by making resources available to departments so it’s easy for them to place advertisements in community specific media and by building strong relationships with each city agency’s marketing directors — who place the advertisements in outlets and communicate with various advertising agencies. 
  • Implement reporting requirements. Reporting requirements from departments and third party vendors should ensure that we know our taxpayer dollars are well spent, and show the City how it can make improvements based on the data. This accountability will also help streamline the advertising program, solving a big issue cited in the report. 
  • Develop a directory of community-specific media outlets. In New York City, the Mayor’s Office of Ethnic and Community Media established eligibility requirements for inclusion in the city’s list.

“A weak local and ethnic media ecosystem impacts our democracy and harms communities, leading to more corruption, less citizen participation, more misinformation, and even more alienation,” said Maya Chupkov, Media & Democracy Program Manager at California Common Cause. “I am happy to see San Francisco recognize the importance of strengthening its local news ecosystem. In many cases, community-specific media have built up the trust of their communities by covering issues often missed by larger media. Having government departments in San Francisco seriously consider a broad range of local and hyperlocal news publications for their advertising could strengthen such outlets—and, by sustaining local news, also support democracy.”

New York City has already implemented this policy and it’s had profound benefits. In its first fiscal year, city agencies funded over 220 community media outlets on less than $10 million, totaling nearly 84% of city agencies’ total print and digital ad buys. Seattle has a full-time staff person who works with ethnic media and city departments on advertising campaigns, and Chicago has also passed a similar program to New York. San Francisco’s plan includes applying what has already worked elsewhere and how the city can do it better.

The advertising plan includes backing from the San Francisco State University Journalism Department, which would serve as independent local monitor of the program. SF State Journalism will help connect city staff and marketing directors with ethnic and community media outlets, helping to maximize the impact of city spending while making the overall program more effective and efficient. The program is modeled off the Advertising Boost Initiative in New York City, where the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York serves as monitor and intermediary. 

“Ethnic and community media are essential voices for their readers and communities,” said Jesse Garnier, Chair of the San Francisco State University Journalism Department. “Connecting local publishers with fresh revenue streams strengthens our media ecosystem while helping overcome vast disparities in funding and resources that have existed for decades. We are energized to work with the city, ethnic and multilingual media outlets, and local community publishers to carry out recommendations from the report. This should help ensure city messaging on programs reach all residents, in all communities, through known and trusted outlets.”

Read the full report here.

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