Wisconsin tries again to save local news, Microsoft announces AI news partners


Wisconsin legislators are trying again to help save its local news industry. I hope residents badger them to get it done this year.

The latest effort is a suite of bills to support news outlets, subscribers and early-career journalists.

Rep. Jimmy Anderson modeled them on proposals in Congress and other states. It helps that his first job, in his teens, was delivering newspapers.

Brier Dudley's SAVE THE FREE PRESS columns are made available for free to the public and to other newspapers for their use — to build awareness of the local journalism crisis and potential solutions. The entire body of work is viewable here: st.news/SavetheFreePress

Now a lawyer and Democrat representing Fitchburg, a suburb of Madison, Anderson said he wants to “bolster local journalism to basically improve our democracy.”

“I’ve often thought that many of the ills that are currently facing our democracy really come from an unhealthy media diet,” he said by phone.

The package may be a longshot but Anderson wants it to advance the conversation about saving journalism and potentially inspire other policymakers.

“While I don’t have any illusions that it’s going to pass this legislature, particularly this term, I do think it’s an important way to put ideas out in the world,” he said, “and maybe there are other states or jurisdictions or localities that might be interested in doing something similar.”

Wisconsin is among a handful of states trying to address the local journalism crisis that’s left more than half of America’s counties with no local news outlet or only a gutted “ghost” newspaper.

The state lost 37% of its papers since 2004, according to research at the University of North Carolina and Northwestern University.

In 2021, Republican Reps. Roger Roth and Todd Novak proposed a tax credit of up to $5,000 for small businesses advertising in local media. Novak is a former newspaper editor. His office told me the proposal is still being pursued this year but as a budget item and not a stand-alone bill.

Anderson said his local paper, the McFarland Thistle, is struggling and the Gannett-owned Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel fills space with “more nationalized stories,” he said.

Anderson proposed the bills in late January with two Democratic colleagues. He said he supports Novak’s proposal and would like Republican co-sponsors.

One of Anderson’s proposals would provide up to $250 in tax credits for households to defray news subscription costs. Credits would be against Wisconsin’s income tax.

A federal subscription credit was proposed in 2021 in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. But the bill’s current iteration, the Community News and Small Business Support Act, just provides credits for newsroom jobs and local advertising. Its bipartisan co-sponsors include two Wisconsin Republicans.

Anderson’s second bill would create a “civic information consortium” with state universities to provide grants. This is similar to a New Jersey consortium created in 2018 that supports a mix of journalism and nonprofit organizations.

A third proposal would fund a journalism fellowship program, similar to those in Washington and California. It calls for $25 million to fund 25 positions, paying $40,000 apiece, over five years.

Washington last year budgeted $2.4 million for 16 two-year fellowships paying $55,000 yearly. Applications are now being reviewed and the fellowships will begin later this year, through Washington State University.

California in 2022 budgeted $25 million for up to 40 three-year fellowships paying $60,000 to $65,000. But funding could be cut as the state addresses its deficit, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Jan. 23.

Anderson told reporters on Jan. 30 that the Wisconsin proposals are written to protect the independence of journalists, The Cap Times reported.

“The goal obviously is for journalists to be able to hold us accountable,” he said, per its report.

Federal help is still needed, urgently. Meanwhile people in states like Wisconsin stand to benefit from leadership that appreciates the necessity of local journalism and is trying to help before it’s too late.

Microsoft AI deals: Microsoft’s laudable efforts to support local journalism are getting complicated, now that it’s a leader in artificial-intelligence technology many see as threatening the news industry’s future.

On Monday the Redmond software giant became the latest AI vendor to announce partnerships with news organizations, emphasizing the technology’s business utility.

Whether that changes the narrative or prevents further lawsuits, beyond The New York Times AI case alleging copyright infringement by Microsoft and its partner OpenAI, remains to be seen.

In the announcement, Microsoft Journalism Director Noreen Gillespie said the goal “is to support thriving, sustainable newsrooms with the technology they need to perform the essential function of informing the world.”

Microsoft’s partners include one news outlet, Semafor, a startup working with Microsoft on using AI tools to aggregate news reported by other outlets.

At the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, Microsoft is supporting a three-month program for journalists to “explore ways to incorporate generative AI into their work and newsrooms.”

Microsoft is also supporting Online News Association “programming to support journalists and newsroom leaders as they navigate the evolving AI ecosystem” and The GroundTruth Project, the nonprofit behind the Report for America temporary reporting program.

Additionally, Microsoft is working with Nota, a startup developing AI tools for newsrooms.

“Healthy news organizations do not exist without journalists who know their communities and topics, have deep relationships with leaders in government and civic life, and understand how to reach their communities,” Gillespie’s statement said. “This work is challenging — and our goal is to find ways to support journalists in this mission, not replace them.”

That’s good to hear. Microsoft must have learned this the hard way, after several serious glitches last year at its MSN news portal.

CNN reported in November that “Microsoft’s decision to increasingly rely on the use of automation and artificial intelligence over human editors to curate its homepage appears to be behind the site’s recent amplification of false and bizarre stories.”

Brier Dudley on Twitter: @BrierDudley is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative. Its weekly newsletter: https://st.news/FreePressNewsletter. Reach him at bdudley@seattletimes.com.