Opinion: Use local media for state advertising

RB5408 is an essential step to protecting a well-functioning and well-informed democracy.

This opinion originally appeared in the CT Mirror on March 7, 2024 and was written by Alex Knopp.

The collapse of local news is bad for democracy. Research shows that civic engagement is strongly tied to local news habits, and that communities with less local news have lower voting rates.

And aside from increasing civic apathy, communities with less local news have also been shown to have lower bond ratings and higher taxes, as well as heightened government corruption due to a deficit of the accountability and public pressure that local news reporting provides.

The importance of local news was made clear to me during my terms in public office. As a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives from 1987 to 2001, I witnessed the necessity of comprehensive reporting at both the statewide and community levels to ensure my constituents in Southwestern Connecticut received timely updates on how decisions being made in Hartford would affect their lives.

And as mayor of Norwalk from 2001 to 2005, I saw how vital our local publications were in disseminating everything from proposed school budgets to civic updates on new procedures in City Hall to community-wide notices about opening a new restaurant in SoNo.

Here’s one example I remember perhaps too well! My 2001 mayoral campaign produced the biggest electoral victory in recent Norwalk history as Democrats carried all 15 Common Council members and all Board of Education members. To preserve an alternative political voice in town, our local newspaper editor decided to give the Republican town chairman a monthly column as a bullhorn to criticize my administration. I may not have appreciated it at the time but in retrospect I acknowledge our local media was attempting to amplify alternative voices in our town’s political culture. Those voices may have been silenced but for that local media decision.

Connecticut’s local reporters play a central role in continuing to shed light on lawmakers’ decisions and actions, something that every citizen stands to benefit from. That’s why I am a financial supporter of Norwalk’s hyper-local digital news publication, called “Nancy On Norwalk.” But contributions from well-meaning donors may not be sufficient.

It’s impossible to ignore the instability of newsrooms across the country: At the national level, top papers have had massive layoffs in recent months, while several other major outlets have folded entirely. Here in Connecticut, our local newsrooms are facing similar challenges in supporting newsroom staff. Community-centered reporting is being reduced while coverage shifts to more regional and national reporting.

The bill currently moving through the General Assembly, Raised Bill No. 5408, aims to support Connecticut-owned media outlets and nonprofit news companies by redirecting existing  government advertising into all forms of local media —digital as well as print— and thus allowing for public financing of journalism in Connecticut without compromising editorial independence.

And what’s more, the bill does not require any additional government spending – rather, it merely redirects a portion of existing state government advertising dollars to Connecticut-owned outlets.

This common-sense piece of legislation is new to Connecticut, but it is not new as a concept – both New York City and Chicago have successfully implemented similar policies that require the government to spend a certain amount of its already-budgeted advertising dollars on placements in local news outlets, thereby reinforcing the strength of community-focused news organizations that citizens depend on. Connecticut has the opportunity to set a national standard for funding of local news by being first in the country to pass this legislation at the state level.

As someone who has spent a great deal of both my professional and personal life advocating for increased civic engagement and government accountability, this year’s legislative proposal to support Connecticut’s local news is a pragmatic solution to a trending media problem. I urge members of the General Assembly to support RB5408 as an essential step to protecting a well-functioning and well-informed democracy.

Alex Knopp is a Visiting Clinical Lecturer at Yale Law School. Knopp currently sits on the advisory board of Common Cause Connecticut and is a member of the Rebuild Local News CT Coalition, of which CT Mirror Publisher Bruce Putterman is also a member.