Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Opinion | The government can and should save local news

CW / Riley Thompson
The Tuscaloosa News headquarters

Local news outlets are dying. According to a recent report from the Medill Local News Initiative, more than 2,800 newspapers, predominantly local papers, have closed their doors since 2005 due in part to a “dramatic decline in advertising revenue.”

In a democracy, civic participation at every level requires high quality, easily accessible information. At the local level, it requires skilled journalists reporting on small-town police departments, state politicians’ homemade IDs, and local censorship crusades.

National outlets publish some great work: Jamelle Bouie’s opinion pieces for The New York Times and Elizabeth Bruenig’s coverage of the death penalty for The Atlantic both come to mind. But it will never make financial sense for The Washington Post to pay full-time journalists in small Alabama towns to cover city council meetings.

Unfortunately, the number of journalists actually paid to report on local news has been declining even faster than the number of local news outlets

This horrific loss of institutional experience and knowledge is potentially irreversible.

Last year, a consortium of philanthropic organizations pledged to donate $500 million over five years to try to stop this drawn-out death of local journalism. A nice gesture for sure, but unlikely to turn the tide.

In 2019, the Knight Foundation similarly pledged to donate $300 million over five years to help bolster local reporting. Those five years are going to be up next month, and local news outlets aren’t faring any better.

Relying on philanthropy to keep society’s basic needs met is unsustainable and a regular target for criticism from the left and from the right. In order for every community to be able to access high-quality local journalism, we’ll need far more money than philanthropists will ever shell out. Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. estimated that it would cost $10 billion to ensure that every congressional district has a high-quality regional outlet.

Like clean drinking water, everyone benefits from access to good quality news, but the market alone seems unable to provide enough of it. Philanthropists’ pockets have proved too shallow. In short, the government needs to step in and pick up the check.

Many will be justifiably squeamish about having the government pay local news outlets’ bills. If we need the free press in order to keep an eye on politicians, at first blush having those same politicians sign journalists’ paychecks seems potentially problematic at best.

Editorial independence is possible, however. The Crimson White is run out of the University’s Office of Student Media, but we make our own decisions about what to cover. Despite receiving funding from the University, we regularly publish both opinions and news pieces that go against the administration.

It is more than possible for public institutions to support journalism critical of those same institutions. Governments can and should fund local journalism without running the risk of picking winners and losers.

Last July, Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., introduced the Community News and Small Business Support Act. Endorsed by 18 Democrats and 17 Republicans, Tenney’s bill would create tax credits for small businesses advertising in local news and cut employment taxes for local news outlets hiring journalists. It was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Even disregarding the inherent flaws with using the tax code to fix every little policy problem, the bill isn’t the best way to support local news.

Tax credits for advertising in local news would be woefully insufficient given that the massive, ongoing decline in newspapers’ advertising revenue is caused by the greater efficiency of targeted online advertising. Cutting employment taxes for hiring journalists could help regional outlets with already sizable staffs stay afloat but it wouldn’t help entrepreneurial journalists founding new outlets.

The Democracy Policy Network proposed an alternative system of “Local News Dollars.” Citizens would be given vouchers they could then give to local news outlets in lieu of paying for subscriptions. News outlets then hand the vouchers over to the government, redeem them for cash and pay journalists’ salaries.

In October 2023, D.C. city council members Janeese Lewis George and Brianne Nadeau introduced the Local News Funding Act. Their act would have dedicated $11.5 million every year toward grants for producers of local news, distributed to whichever local outlets registered voters decided to give their vouchers to.

“It should not be up to the government to decide which outlets are funded,” Lewis George explained. “That is why our bill solely empowers DC residents to allocate grant funding among news outlets.” 

While Lewis George and Nadeau’s bill would have forbidden outlets from giving or receiving “anything of value in connection with the allocation of a news coupon,” like, say, free subscriptions, it still would’ve been a major step forward for public funding of local news.

Both of these proposed programs failed to pass but momentum must continue to build. More than 1,500 counties have only one local news source and run the risk of soon even losing that — 204 counties already have none.

Luckily if you want to stay abreast of local news in the Tuscaloosa area, you can still subscribe to some of the free newsletters from, the Alabama Political Reporter or Tuscaloosa Patch, or take advantage of Tuscaloosa News’ $1 for six months digital subscription offer.

If we want politicians to be held accountable in local elections, corruption to be detected and exposed, and small communities to thrive, we need local journalists. We need the state and federal government to help save local news.

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