Farrar Pitches State Spending to Subsidize Local News Outlets

State Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford (Contributed).

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HARTFORD — A Connecticut lawmaker is proposing that the state government spend as much as $5 million dollars on advertising in local news outlets to help bolster the faltering media industry.

“When we lose local news organizations, we usually have lower voter turnout, there is decreased civic engagement and there is also increased political polarization,” said State Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford, who also tried last year to pass similar legislation. 

Under Farrar’s proposal, at least 50 percent — or upwards of $5 million — of the Department of Administrative Services’ annual budget for print and digital advertising services for state agencies must be contracts with media outlets. The media outlets must be owned by an in-state entity, produce original content and have been in existence for at least one year.

Farrar said the department, along with several of its current vendors who offer advertising services, would decide which media outlets would receive money and how much. Currently the department has contracts with 35 vendors who offer media, marketing and public relations services. Of those 35 vendors, 20 offer advertising services, 17 of which are based in Connecticut.

Asked by CT Examiner for the criteria that would be used to select the media companies benefitting from the state spending, the Department of Administrative Services declined to comment. But Farrar told CT Examiner that media outlets could include online sites, newspapers, blogs, online newsletters and even pennysavers.

Farrar told CT Examiner it’s too early to say which groups would receive the money, but that infusing advertising dollars into media outlets could allow them to stay afloat. But unlike last year’s proposal, Farrar said this year’s bill would include having a neutral party — likely an educational entity — to guide the process for fairness.  

Farrar told CT Examiner that it’s critical that the state do its part to help media outlets, especially smaller ones, which she called sacred to a democracy. 

“Building trust in our government is one of the roles that I take very seriously,” Farrar said. “And to me, having local news as part of our community isn’t just beneficial for informing the public, but also in holding us accountable as elected officials.”

Farrar said New York City and Chicago have similar laws, and both use a neutral party when it’s time to dole out dollars. If the approved by the legislature, she told CT Examiner Connecticut would be the first state to enact such a measure

“Those third parties in New York City and Chicago helped in the research and analysis and the implementation of the law and the policy,” she said. “We’d like to partner with a volunteer third-party entity here in Connecticut to help in the same way.”

The bill will first need to be approved by the legislature’s Government, Administration and Elections Committee, whose vice chair, State Rep. Amy Morrin Bello, D-Wethersfield, is a big supporter.

“The bill is important because there has been a decrease in local news sources, and that does not benefit our communities,” Morrin Bello said. 

Few of the state’s advertising vendors were willing to comment on the legislation, but those that did questioned how the funding would be allocated, while generally supporting the idea. 

Sherri Baggett, publisher of the Newtown Bee, said the money “would help us to sustain continuing to print our paper and keep us on our feet.”

But Baggett, whose family has owned the 150-year-old weekly paper for four generations, said she’s concerned about how the funds would be allocated, suggesting that companies like Hearst Connecticut “could easily gobble up a good portion of that. But we are not going to turn down any little bit we can get. Any little bit helps.”

Mike McGarry, co-publisher of the Hartford News, told CT Examiner that print advertising is “never going away.” 

McGarry, who ran for Hartford mayor as a Republican last year, said he hopes the neutral party would have a strong say on which media outlets get the money and “be a seasoned person with that institution who understands how print and radio work, and not someone from that cellphone world where everything is online.”

Tod Kallenbach, vice president of the Bloomfield-based Dornenburg Group, said he’s unsure if he’ll be asked to help choose which outlets receive the funding, but embraced the goal of supporting local journalism.

“I am all in favor of supporting local media. You get news about your local communities in a way you really can’t get anywhere else,” Kallenbach said. “There are a number of small media companies out there, particularly in and around Hartford, that serve, basically, underserved communities and are very targeted in terms of demographics, ethnicity, and socioeconomic criteria. They provide vital information.”

The other 16 Connecticut-based state advertising vendors declined to comment on the bill.


Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950

Robert.Storace@ctexaminer.com