SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
According to the University of North Carolina, more than half of all American counties have no daily newspaper. Other studies suggest these growing news deserts, as they're called, contribute to low voter turnout and increasing partisanship. But as KUNC's Rae Ellen Bichell reports, the city of Longmont, Colo., is eyeing one possible solution.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: After 25 years of running Ellen's Bed and Breakfast, Ellen Ranson got tired of cooking breakfast.
ELLEN RANSON: So we decided change the name to Ellen's Bed, Bath & Begone (ph).
BICHELL: Which left her more time for sleeping in or reading the paper. But that wasn't too exciting because the local paper had been thinning out for a while. Ranson says it used to be relevant.
RANSON: And now there's news about Frederick or Erie or Fort Collins or something.
BICHELL: All cities she lives near but not Longmont.
RANSON: This is a city of 92,000 people.
BICHELL: And she says a lot is going on. Scott Converse tried to fight back against the encroaching news desert by starting a publication, the Longmont observer. From the get-go, though, funding was a problem.
SCOTT CONVERSE: We're proof that news is not profitable (laughter). We get enough donations to pay our rent and our Internet here and that's it. That's literally it.
BICHELL: So lately, Converse has been looking for new ideas for how to fund local journalism.
CONVERSE: I found this article out of the Columbia Journalism Review.
BICHELL: It was called "Journalism Is A Public Service. Why Don't We Fund It Like One?"
CONVERSE: Buy a guy named Simon Galperin.
SIMON GALPERIN: Yeah. Yeah.
BICHELL: That's him right there. Galperin works for a nonprofit called the Community Information cooperative. He says newspapers could be publicly funded, and he says the way to do this is through a common technique, starting something called a Special Improvement District. These already exist for a bunch of purposes - parks, airports, highways.
GALPERIN: Fire safety, mosquito abatement. So it kind of just made sense to say, OK, let's create one for local news and information.
BICHELL: Galperin says a special district could, in theory, allow a community to hire journalists, maybe even full newsrooms. Back in Longmont, that idea was a light bulb moment for Scott Converse.
CONVERSE: And I thought, that's brilliant. What a great idea.
BICHELL: He learned that there's a type of special district that's actually really common in Colorado for libraries. And what are libraries, he says, if not sources of trusted information chockfull of some of the nation's best information ninjas?
CONVERSE: Librarians are badasses. You know, you do not mess with a librarian.
BICHELL: Try to ban a book, he says, and you'll run into serious trouble.
CONVERSE: That's because they believe in the freedom of information.
BICHELL: And libraries are nonprofit and nonpartisan.
CONVERSE: What better place to put a newsroom?
BICHELL: The city is doing a feasibility study right now on whether it makes sense to give the library its own special district, and a new service is part of that conversation. Converse says he's getting some pushback on the idea of a government-funded news service, but he has an answer for that.
CONVERSE: It's not government-run news. It's news run by the people for the people and funded by the people.
BICHELL: Just like the BBC in the U.K. or the CBC in Canada, or at least in part, public radio here. And technically speaking, special districts aren't part of the local government. They're independent entities with their own funding and their own governing boards. There is a concern that special districts wouldn't work for everyone, if they would work at all. But maybe a special district could revegetate the news desert threatening Longmont and people like Ellen Ranson. She misses the era when new businesses would get a write-up in the paper.
RANSON: And I thought that was so nice. They don't do that anymore.
BICHELL: She and her husband now learn about local candidates from political parties rather than journalists, and there are mystery mysteries going unanswered like that new building they sometimes drive past.
RANSON: It's a huge building, and nobody knows what it is.
BICHELL: She wishes someone, maybe a journalist, would look into it. For NPR News, I'm Rae Ellen Bichell.
MCCAMMON: That story came to us from the public radio collaboration the Mountain West News Bureau.
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