RJI Fellow Simon Galperin is proposing a new business model for news he believes will not only help fund an operating budget but also involve readers more intimately: community information districts.
He plans to develop his idea and set the stage to launch three pilot information districts by the end of his 2018-19 fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.
Community information districts fund local news and information projects through an already existing news outlet or by launching separate civic dialogue projects, text messaging services, or newsletters, says Galperin, founder of Community Information Cooperative.
“The districts would be funded similarly to how special service districts, which financially support fire protection and sanitation services, are funded,” says Galperin. “Municipalities assess each resident a small fee. With everyone contributing, there could be enough funds for an operating budget.”
“If a billionaire is making decisions about who should run The New York Times, the [news outlet] cannot possibly — by its very structure — ever truly be in the public service.”
Currently, many news outlets are owned by larger parent companies or investors, some of which are located in other parts of the country and-or don’t have a journalist or enough journalists present in a neighborhood or community to provide adequate coverage. According to Galperin, this can disassociate journalism from the people it matters to the most and not completely serve a community’s news and information needs.
“If a billionaire is making decisions about who should run The New York Times, the [news outlet] cannot possibly — by its very structure — ever truly be in the public service,” he says. “I don’t blame the people there. I know a lot of great local journalists who are doing incredible work. It is not their fault that the structure is undemocratic.”
Galperin says he sees news and information as a vital special service that should be funded like one. Since a community information district would need to be voted on and funded by the community like other special services, newsroom reform would need to happen, he says. “A special district would need to prioritize transparency and engagement and let readers oversee the editorial agenda,” says Galperin.
He is working out details in strategic planning during the fellowship for how to move forward with what the reform could look like and who would help with the process, he says.
Galperin says community information districts will require some buy-in from residents because they would require a vote to pass. However, he says, he believes with enough education and a community interested in preserving news and helping direct the news source, buy-in is possible.
He says the first step is to identify communities that have grassroots interest in preserving or sustaining news coverage. From there, he says, it’ll be important to find local partners or stakeholders who could help be advocates for the idea to the community. The community would then meet for public forums where they could talk about what they like or dislike about current news coverage, what they want to see in a community information district and how best to serve the public’s needs.
“The empowerment you can feel at a local level to have your information and communication needs met, I think, will have a network effect in our democracy,” he says.
Galperin is starting this effort as a part of his fellowship by identifying good candidates for pilot info districts in New Jersey and elsewhere. Economic and political factors play a role, as well as the the availability of philanthropic funding for the effort and an already civically engaged community, he says.