By Regina Brown Wilson and Sandy Close
What could go wrong when Sacramento politicians decide the future of
The California legislature may soon provide the answer. SB 911 – authored by Sen. Steve Glazer – is the subject of a debate over how $25 million in state surplus funds should be distributed to local and ethnic journalism. If passed, we believe the bill would put an issue at the heart of the independent ethnic media sector.
Ethnic media pride themselves on being rooted in their communities and being an independent advocacy voice – accountable to the communities they serve. In 1827, the Freedom Journal’s mission statement proudly read: “We wish to plead our own cause, too long others have spoken for us.”
As advocates for the ethnic media sector, we work with ethnic media professionals on a daily basis. One of our main objections to SB 911 is that it promotes a single model for local and ethnic journalism.
In fact, for many decades most ethnic media operated as for-profit businesses. You can see on the mastheads — Sentinel, Voice, Guardian, Crusader — the call to our communities. The mainstream media has often denigrated ethnic media as advocacy media, without understanding the unique role we play for our readers.
SB 911 promotes a “not-for-profit” model that would expressly prohibit ethnic media from supporting political candidates or lobbying for or against proposed legislation. That would shut them up!
SB 911 establishes political appointees board to administer state money that would be costly and time-consuming to set up and would ultimately determine criteria for how the government distributes support to local journalism for years to come . Ethnic media could have two representatives on this board. But the majority of panel members would have no direct knowledge of the unique role of ethnic media or how they operate. The last thing ethnic media needs is people with little experience in their communities to figure out what kind of media those communities need.
This scheme puts ethnic media in competition for the approval of a council of political appointments. They would end up depending on this advice. In fact, they would end up depending on grants or government agencies instead of the local communities that have long supported them.
As currently drafted, the bill would allow media startups — including many in the nonprofit space — that have only operated for one or two years to receive support. This language fails to recognize the contributions of established media that have worked for decades to serve and support their communities.
SB 911 shines a light on the dire straits many ethnic media outlets find themselves in, particularly in the wake of business closures due to the pandemic, inflation and a possible recession, not to mention the demands to adapt to the digital world. But we’re not ready to greenlight the bill as it’s currently drafted in the name of the council’s share of the $25 million the board is giving to individual outlets once their own administration costs are covered. .
We urge the Legislative Assembly to consider far more productive ways to support the ethnic news sector, just as it did with the 2020 Census promotion efforts when it increased media advertising funds. ethnic media from $15 million to over $85 million, recognizing that only ethnic media could provide truly inclusive outreach to the diverse communities that now make up the state.
Redirecting the $25 million toward advertising or raising awareness about the many issues these communities are currently facing is the best use of public funds. Create mandates that direct a fairer share of marketing dollars for issues such as drought, housing, wildfires, climate change or health care to our media sector and that will reach underserved audiences than the state must achieve, rather than waste time and money on a costly administrative process on behalf of ethnic media.
The not-for-profit model works well for only a small number of ethnic news agencies; they are community gatherers and informants, they fit the category of mission-driven journalism, we commend 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 into a model that reduces their interdependence with the community. “For too long others have spoken for us.” That is what SB 911 does and that is why we must oppose it.
about the authors
Regina Brown Wilson is executive director of California Black Media, the oldest local-owned black media rights organization.
Sandy Close is director of Ethnic Media Services and former executive director of New America Media/Pacific News Service.