Designing the Program: Introduction
Governments spend significant sums placing advertisements in an array of venues—Facebook, Google, billboards, cable TV networks, newspapers, bus shelters, and others.
Why not push the government to place a meaningful share of those ads in local news outlets?
The amount of money is significant. In normal times, the federal government spends approximately $1 billion annually on advertising, including military recruitment, census compliance, and public health. For the past three years, New York City alone has spent almost $50 million on radio, print, and digital advertising in local and community media as part of its marketing campaigns. When COVID-19 hit, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, for instance, launched numerous ad campaigns about how the virus spreads, tips for staying safe, and how to access vaccines. Governments have used advertising to notify residents about: the availability of pre-K programs, drug abuse resources, emergency preparedness, election updates, location of polling places, the need to curb dogs, the importance of not speeding and resources for immigrants.
According to Spanish-language news outlet El Tiempo Latino, the District of Columbia spent approximately $6.7 million on advertising in 2022. Chicago spent between $2.27 million and $3.5 million over five years.
Meanwhile, local news in much of the country is struggling or collapsing. This harms communities by depriving residents of critical information. Newspaper advertising has dropped 82 percent since 2000, contributing to a 57 percent drop in the number of newspaper reporters and thousands of media closures.
Historically, government agencies have not prioritized awarding advertising contracts to local and ethnic media outlets, especially smaller independent ones. In 2013, the Center for Community Media at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism reported that 82 percent of New York City’s print and digital advertising spending went to The New York Times, the Daily News, and a handful of citywide publications. In Chicago, the city spent 13 percent of its print and digital media spending over five years with smaller community and ethnic media, according to a study. Meanwhile, state governments are spending significant ad monies on social media platforms, bypassing local press altogether.
While we understand government agencies must run effective marketing campaigns, their neglect of local media—especially smaller players—is unfair and unwise. Often, government agencies only consider larger media outlets or social media platforms simply because it’s easier and those platforms seemingly offer better metrics. The system leads to local news—especially community newspapers and hyperlocal websites—getting much less government ad dollars than it should. That’s short-sighted for the government because these publications often have the trust of their communities. Just as important, it’s been documented that the collapse of local news harms communities, leading to more corruption, less citizen participation, more misinformation, and even more alienation. It is in the public interest for governments to take affirmative steps to strengthen local news (More later on how local news needs to do more to lure government advertising). In many cases, they have built up this trust by covering issues often missed by larger media.
Just as important, it’s been documented that the collapse of local news harms communities, leading to more corruption, less citizen participation, more misinformation, and even more alienation. It is in the public interest for governments to take affirmative steps to strengthen local news (More later on how local news needs to do more to lure government advertising).
Having government agencies seriously consider a broad range of local and hyperlocal news publications for their advertising could strengthen such outlets—and, by sustaining local news, also support democracy. In 2011, a report by the Federal Communications Commission urged the federal government to consider such steps. But it was on the local level that the idea came to fruition—and had an impact that benefitted both government agencies trying to reach the public and media organizations struggling in a daunting economic environment. The Center for Community Media (CCM) persuaded New York City’s mayor to issue an executive order in 2019 requiring that 50 percent of the city’s print and digital advertising budget go to community and ethnic media. (The center is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York). The Ad Boost Initiative, as it came to be called, has been an enormous success. In the first year, 84 percent of the city’s print and digital advertising went to community publications, enabling them to add reporters and, in some cases, survive. More than 220 outlets received funding in the first year, some 50 of which had never benefited from city advertising. In 2019, the Haitian Times received about $200 in city advertising; in 2020, they received $73,000, including public health and census ads. “We were able to hire freelancers to beef up our coverage, to increase the hours of our social media director and to bring on a managing editor as well as a copy editor,” says Gary Pierre-Pierre, publisher of the Haitian Times. Seeing the success in NYC, media advocates in Chicago convinced their mayor to issue a similar executive order. Legislation is also being introduced and debated in other states and cities.
We believe the judicious, accountable use of government ad spending is a powerful and sensible tool to help local news. But being candid about the risks and benefits to the government, media, and the public is crucial. If done poorly, this approach can harm all parties. If done well, it can strengthen local journalism and communities.
- It can provide substantial revenue to local news organizations and help community journalism thrive.
- It is money the government is already spending—not new money—so it does not require enlarging state or local budgets or raising taxes.
- Government messages should reach a full range of residents, including those that may not be using larger media.
- As advertising, it is payment for a service rendered, not a subsidy per se.
- Advertising in community news helps government be more effective by reaching audiences through community and ethnic publications that are more trusted in their communities.
- Governments worldwide have used ad spending to reward and punish news organizations or influence coverage.
- A poorly designed program could lead to the misimpression that some news organizations are politically beholden to politicians and untrustworthy.
- Some news organizations may become too dependent on government advertising revenue, affecting their accountability reporting or government coverage.
- In other countries, fake websites appeared to have captured government funding.
- Publications may exaggerate audience numbers and other metrics to win government funding.
- Government agencies, or the public, may come to believe that they are being forced to be inefficient—placing ads in print publications with less demonstrated effectiveness—in the name of helping a politically powerful constituency.
We believe these programs can be very beneficial if appropriately constructed.
What follows is a kit of best practices that lays out principles that should guide local efforts to steering ad dollars to local media and practical steps that can make it successful. The kit includes a model bill and an executive order, followed by a comprehensive library of resources and documents.
This report results from a collaborative process involving contributions and analyses from local publishers, academic experts from around the world, First Amendment advocates—and most especially, the Center for Community Media leaders, which pioneered this approach through its Advertising Boost Initiative.
If you’re considering whether to advocate this approach in your state or city, you may first ask yourself these questions:
How does the government currently spend its advertising dollars? It is common for cities and states to allocate a portion of their budgets to advertising and marketing. Sometimes it goes to local media (including metro dailies, TV stations, radio, and local publications) and, sometimes, to other forms of advertising (billboards, bus stop ads). Knowing how and where the government spends its ad dollars is essential. In New York City, the 2013 Center for Community Media’s report, funded by the Charles Revson Foundation, about the bias of spending toward big players created the impetus to spend more advertising dollars in community outlets. Knowing how much money the government spent on advertising to local news will enable stakeholders to track whether there is progress in the subsequent years.
The key information to ask for is:
–How much is each government agency spending on advertising?
–How much is going to each media outlet?
In some cases, outside groups needed to file Freedom of Information Act requests. In the appendix we provide examples.
While submitting your FOIAs don’t forget to:
- Make sure you understand the process by which advertising is placed in your jurisdiction. Some governments have a centralized process, however most governments allow each department to handle their own advertising placements. Those departments usually use advertising firms to place the advertisements, so you may need to specify you’re looking for information about the advertising product, not just the advertising contract.
- If you have the opportunity to follow up on your request, frame the FOIA as an opportunity to help the government be more effective . Government advertising set asides provide the dual benefit of helping governments reach their citizens more directly via the community news outlets their citizens trust. This can be a mutually beneficial project.
- Be patient, but persistent. FOIAs can take time, but they typically need diligent follow through.
In some cases, outside groups needed to file Freedom of Information Act requests. In the appendix we list examples. Helpfully, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has resources that can help local stakeholders file freedom of information requests on this topic. The Reporters Committee’s Open Government Guide (www.rcfp.org/open-government-guide/) provides a state by state breakdown of each freedom of information law. If that doesn’t provide the information you need, you may contact Reporters Committee Senior Staff Attorney Adam Marshall, who may be able to provide further guidance (amarshall at rcfp.org.)
Would government agencies be able to place ads in multiple outlets easily? Government agencies—or the third-party media buyers they often use—will need to be able to place advertisements in larger numbers of small outlets. In New York City, a handful of advertising agencies assist city agencies with campaign planning, media buying, creative development, and effective ad placements. But in some places, no such network exists, or they exist, but small players are not participating. If a system doesn’t exist, you’ll need to work with other civic groups – several of which are moving to create such networks.
Is there an independent organization that could help drive and monitor this program? Such initiatives require an independent third party—working with the government and publishers—to succeed. It could be a university or a nonpartisan nonprofit, but it should be respected in the community and apolitical. Any third party will need to play these roles:
- Creating and maintaining the list. Eventually, a third party can get things started by developing a list of local media outlets, but once a state or municipality finalizes such a list, the third party should monitor that list.
- Being a watchdog. An independent body can help ensure that spending is diverse, equitable, inclusive, not based on political favoritism, and targeted to legitimate news organizations.
- Bridging media buyers and local publishers. Publishers need to make it easy for the government to put money into local news outlets without much extra work for government personnel.
- Educating local media. Some community publishers will need help to receive ads.
- Making the case. They will often play a central role in convincing the public and elected officials about the importance of this approach