Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on his Future of Local News bill: ‘We can’t just wait around for the situation to resolve itself’

The loss of local news nationwide has led to “an enormous test of our democratic institutions.”

So said Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet over Zoom Thursday during a roundtable with journalists. He was there to talk about The Future of Local News Commission Act, a federal bill he rolled out in September with Democratic U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The Colorado Media Project, which supports the bill, organized the roundtable.

The bill would create a 13-member commission to examine, among other things, “potential new mechanisms for public funding for the production of local news to meet the critical information needs of the people of the United States and address systemic inequities in media coverage and representation throughout the country.”

The legislation is the latest of about a half a dozen federal measures introduced in the past two years aimed at addressing the bottomed-out business model of the nation’s local news industry, though none so far have passed.

“There are no silver bullets to any of these problems, but I know that we can’t just want around for the situation to resolve itself,” Bennet said on Thursday’s call. “If we do that, we’re going to wake up one day in an America without local news, and we can’t let that happen. So that’s why we wrote the bill, and my colleagues and I are going to push hard to get it passed in the next Congress.”

Melissa Davis of the Colorado Media Project set up the hour-long roundtable and asked me to help moderate it.

Here’s a sampling of some things that came up on the call:

  • Journalism is no longer “safe and easy”: That came from 9News General Manager Mark Cornetta. “Many journalists have been physically attacked by police, by angry mobs, and have had their gear and property destroyed on top of sustaining physical injuries,” he told Bennet. “In addition, journalists and their families have been threatened, doxed, to the point that they’ve had to find alternative places to live and have had to hire, in some cases, 24/7 security for their protection.”
  • The CARES ACT saved newsroom jobs: “At KVNF a reporter resigned and that position would have gone unfilled without knowing that this onetime funding was coming in. Same at KDNK,” said KVNF’s Gavin Dahl. KSUT, a tribal station in the Four Corners region of Colorado, “is actually building on their news department this year in part thanks to these funds,” he added. “So, straight up, it was a lifesaver for our newsrooms.”
  • Old-school journalists are thinking differently about public funding: “I’m on record … as being against the idea of public funding — or government funding — of media,” said Laura Frank, a former Rocky Mountain News and Rocky Mountain PBS journalist who serves as the inaugural director of COLab. “But I will say that the last year has brought me to the point where I am completely open to the discussion, and I think a commission is the right way to look at this.” Former Associated Press and Denver Post editor Larry Ryckman, who now runs The Colorado Sun, told Bennet, “Like Laura, I’ve had some misgivings about government funding. I think my thinking about that is evolving. I’m certainly eager to join in a conversation about it. The reality is that legacy media has been funded by the government in some way or another for decades — through legal notices and through other things. So, it’s not a foreign concept that there’s some government funding that goes to media.”
  • Can’t be beholden: “Certainly, what you guys wouldn’t want, and what I wouldn’t want, is for the press to become beholden to government for support,” Bennet said at one point. “And that’s a real challenge we’re going to have to think through, but it’s not an excuse to throw up our hands and say there’s nothing we can do.” (Those who recall the fate of the Silver & Gold Record at CU might know something about that.)
  • A COVID death close to a newsroom: The novel coronavirus has disproportionally hit communities of color, said Bee Harris, publisher of Denver Urban Spectrum, which has served the Black community for more than 30 years. “As a matter of fact,” she told Bennet, “our editor, his mom was one of the first who died of COVID back in March. So, it has hit home very closely to the Denver Urban Spectrum.”
  • Don’t just hear from journalists. Bring in communities: That was a suggestion from Mike Rispoli of Free Press who helped successfully advocate for a public media fund in New Jersey. “Certainly, what we would want the commission to do is take the soundings of journalists, but not just journalists, communities as well,” Bennet told him. “I know from my travels around the state that people are really worried about this issue. They may not be worried about whether journalists are able to make a living or make a profit or sustain, but they are really worried about where information is coming from and how decisions are being made, and they feel like democracy is being corrupted as a result.”

Included in the duties of the federal panel created by The Future of Local News Commission Act is this, emphasis mine:

… recommendations, in addition to any other proposals deemed appropriate, may explore the possible creation of a new national endowment for local journalism, or the reform and expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or another appropriate institution, to make public funds a part of a multi-faceted approach to sustaining local news.

Some folks on the call zeroed in on the CPB part.

  • “I would say we’re quite likely very supportive of a commission that you are proposing,” Colorado Public Radio CEO Stewart Vanderwilt told Bennet. But he urged any commission to have “close coordination” with the CPB to reduce the risk of unintended consequences that could dismantle “a system that has been very beneficial to the American people.” He called the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television “transformative” for setting the stage for what public broadcasting is today, noting how “in many cases, the most robust locally owned newsrooms are now inside of public broadcasting institutions.”
  • But has the CPB been helpful to minority broadcasters? Endale Getahun, who serves immigrant communities in Aurora across various platforms, doesn’t think so. He told Bennet he hoped any commission would scrutinize the CPB, which he feels hasn’t been friendly to minority broadcasters in the past. His audience, he said, is made up of many Uber drivers, taxi drivers, and hospitality workers. “It is hard to reach them” during this pandemic, he told Bennet, adding that he’s found using Roku devices and other platforms have helped him reach even more people than on radio during the pandemic.
  • Government flaks can’t replace reporters: Susan Greene, formerly of The Colorado Independent, now at COLab, told Bennet that Colorado Press Association members in small towns are complaining their governments are “completely bypassing” them. “I don’t know if this is a Colorado thing or all over, but it’s interesting that government money is being used for spin essentially — not that everything PIOs do is spin, some of it is valid information — but … bypassing reporters, there’s something whacked about that,” she said. “I think that might need to be looked at.” Bennet said he thinks about that a lot. “When a PIO becomes the stand-in for the press … then you’re living in an autocratic society, not in a democracy,” he said.
  • Bennet thinks Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get the 1A: After having dinner with the Facebook founder nearly a year ago, Bennet says he did not leave impressed. “It would be difficult to find somebody who has less of an understanding of what the First Amendment is all about than Mark Zuckerberg,” Bennet said. He added he left the dinner “horribly worried about what Facebook’s position in all this is,” and said, “nothing that’s happened since then has made me think about it any differently.”
  • What about tax law and diversity? Damian Thorman, COLab’s board chair, said he hoped any federal commission would look at tax implications as legacy local news publishers looking at transferring to new ownership could use some tax benefits to encourage them. “We really want to make sure the commission is looking at how diversity is impacted as we try to build up and support the ecosystem,” he said. “It’s really important that we look at some kind of encouragement of diversity.”
  • Leverage on Big Tech: Dan Petty, digital director of audience development at MediaNews Group, which owns The Denver Post, wondered about the possibility of giving those in the local news industry the ability to collectively bargain or negotiate with large internet companies for carrying or aggregating their content. TV broadcasters make plenty of money from re-transmission fees, he noted, but there isn’t really an analogous comparison for the publishing industry. Bennet said he thought it’s something the commission should consider, and added he believes the anti-trust division of the Justice Department should look into it as they investigate Big Tech.

“I really believe that the collapse of conventional journalism has contributed to a world where facts are not as important in forming political decision-making either for the public or for politicians,” Bennet said. “That conspired with other things to create an enormous test of our democratic institutions. And I don’t think we can accept that as a permanent state of things. And the bill we introduced is just one piece of the work ahead of us.”

On that front, Bennet told the assembled media industry faithful that he plans to seek bi-partisan support for the Future of Local News Commission Act.

“We’re going to have to find somebody on the Republican side who’s living in a journalistic desert,” he said — and then he added some grim commentary: “That’s not going to be that hard to find.”

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Journalist and educator in Colorado

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Corey Hutchins

Corey Hutchins

Journalist and educator in Colorado

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