.California’s Ethnic Media Struggles to Survive Local News Crisis

California Journalism Preservation Act fails to support local media

California’s Spanish-language press owes much to Francisco Ramírez, a Los Angeles native who, as a teenager in 1855, started El Clamor Público, the state’s first Spanish-language newspaper. Ramírez printed and then distributed his paper to Spanish-speaking communities from Los Angeles to the Central Valley and as far north as San Francisco.

As El Clamor Público’s sole reporter, Ramírez wrote often about the disconnect between the rights the U.S. Constitution promised to European Americans and those denied to native Californians. In editorials, he frequently challenged the white supremacist ideas driving Western settlement, and he held the state’s authorities to account for allowing whites to dispossess Indigenous people of their lands.

University of Houston Professor Nicolás Kanellos’ latest book, Latinos and Nationhood: Two Centuries of Intellectual Thought (2023), focuses on the history of Latiné intellectuals in the United States. In it, Kanellos credits Ramírez with building El Clamor Público into an “organ of resistance to the expanding American empire,” one that gave voice to people white-owned newspapers too often ignored—or outright maligned.

While El Clamor Público is long gone, Ramírez’s community-serving spirit lives on in much of the state’s ethnic media. Radio Bilingüe, a news network founded in the San Joaquin Valley, reaches populations that California’s corporate outlets have linguistically, socially and economically underserved. The network often airs stories in direct response to listeners’ questions. With a primary mission to “serve as a voice that empowers Latinos and other underserved communities,” Radio Bilingüe has become one of the region’s most trusted Spanish-language news outlets.

Saving ethnic media

Immigrant and Indigenous communities across our state share this proud history of hyperlocal and ethnic media. But amid a local-news crisis that has decimated newsrooms nationwide, many of these outlets struggle to stay afloat.

In California alone, a quarter of news publications shut down between 2004 and 2019, according to recent research. One reason is that the commercial model for local news production collapsed during this period as online options came to dominate a local advertising marketplace that print dailies and weeklies once controlled. And the vast majority of digital-ad revenue goes to companies, primarily Alphabet and Meta, that don’t produce local or ethnic journalism.

Fortunately, the state’s legislators have proposed ways to help. Unfortunately, some of their solutions won’t work as promised. On the good side is the California Local News Fellowship. In 2022, state lawmakers allocated $25 million to UC Berkeley to provide fellowships for experienced reporters to embed in local newsrooms, with a focus on those based in underserved communities. Several of these fellowships are now taking place in news outlets serving Latiné, Asian, Black and Indigenous communities across the state.

A less-promising effort involves state legislation, the California Journalism Preservation Act, that would require large online platforms, like Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram, and search engines, like Alphabet-owned Google, to pay individual news outlets for each link that they feature on their online products.

To better understand who would benefit under the CJPA, Free Press Action studied the website traffic going to the outlets that would qualify for support under the legislation. We found that, however well-intentioned, the CJPA would fail to deliver sufficient funding to California’s local and ethnic media. The bill instead prioritizes payments to the wealthy broadcast-television firms, hedge funds and nationally focused news and entertainment outlets that fail to serve local populations.

Independent media outlets like Radio Bilingüe, which are closest to the communities they serve, receive crumbs from the CJPA compared to the windfall it delivers to corporations like Sinclair Broadcast Group and Fox Corporation, which routinely spread hate and lies about immigrants and communities of color.

Rethinking a problematic bill

Given all of these concerns, the CJPA’s principal sponsors wisely decided to delay further consideration of the bill until 2024. Earlier this month in Los Angeles, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened an informational hearing to hear from the public about what’s needed to address the local news crisis. People from across the state weighed in about this problematic legislation so lawmakers could consider more fruitful ways to support local news.

I testified against the CJPA during the hearing’s public comment window, and others who care about the future of journalism in California should contact their state lawmakers to do the same. We don’t need bills like the CJPA, which would further enrich already profitable, out-of-state media conglomerates, but legislation that promotes the local and ethnic news media that are the still-beating heart of journalism in California.

If lawmakers want to keep the legacy of Francisco Ramírez alive, they need to shift their attention to supporting news outlets that are genuinely committed to serving California’s diverse communities.

Jessica J. González
Jessica J. González is the co-CEO of Free Press Action and a native Californian based in Los Angeles. 


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