Broadband investment could help West Virginia support local news

It’s an opportunity for to address the growing gap between those who have access to quality local news and information and those who don’t. 

By Anna Brugmann 

West Virginia is poised to capitalize on millions of federal broadband funding, and with it comes the opportunity to support local news.

Congress passed billions of dollars of broadband funding in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. West Virginia has already been allocated $6 million of that funding to help improve broadband access for West Virginians, with more money possible in the coming years. 

Among those federal dollars is $2.75 billion earmarked to help states pursue digital equity plans. And with those plans comes yet another opportunity for West Virginia — to address the growing gap between those who have access to quality local news and information and those who don’t. 

Digital equity describes the conditions by which citizens have the resources and skills to be full participants in their culture, society and economy. Despite all West Virginia’s progress in recent years, only a third of West Virginians meet the federal standards for high speed broadband — the other 70% are considered underserved. 

But simply connecting these residents to broadband won’t fulfill the full promise of digital equity. 

That’s because at least half of the counties in the U.S. that do not have a local newspaper also fail to meet the federal minimum for broadband speeds, meaning an internet connection alone won’t necessarily help those residents be full participants in their communities. 

When these residents do get connected to the internet they will find, in many cases, what one expert called “high speed access to garbage.” This is particularly alarming because the communities least likely to have local news are poor, rural and speak a language other than English, the same communities that are disproportionately targeted with mis/disinformation. 

West Virginia is no different. Already this year, two newspapers have closed — the Pineville Independent and the Welch News, the latter located in McDowell county which has a median household income $20,000 below the state average and a sizable Black population. 

On average, two newspapers close per week in the United States. When a newspaper leaves a community, civic participation decreases, including volunteerism and voting rates – trends that run directly counter to the promise of digital equity. Herein lies the opportunity.

West Virginia must submit a digital equity plan by October 2023 to be eligible for more federal Digital Equity funds. According to the state’s 2022 Annual Broadband Report, that plan must include plans for digital literacy innovation programs and integrate objectives for civic and social engagement — two areas of West Virginia’s digital equity plans that could and should include local news outlets.


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Projects that meet these objectives could include participatory journalism programs, like Black by God’s use of “folk reporters” that trains West Virginia residents to cover undercovered hears at the state capital. These programs make citizens more savvy information consumers, a component of digital equity. 

But West Virginia could be even more creative. It could use its digital equity planning process to take a special look at the communities that lack both local news and broadband — what the national advocacy organization Rebuild Local News (where I work) calls double deserts. 

The plan could include funding for local outlets — through Digital Equity Act programs called the Capacity Grants and Competitive Grants — who grow their coverage into double deserts. Funds could even be given to local newsrooms who serve rural communities to help them grow their digital presence to be ready for when their communities and towns become better connected. 

It’s an approach that makes sense to Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association. West Virginia, after all, invests millions in attracting business and industry. It keeps up roads and highways to support economic growth. 

“The government could help that and say look, we recognize that you all fell behind because we didn’t provide ‘the (digital) highways,’” Smith said. “But we are going to give you some money to help the transition.”

Right now West Virginia has exactly that opportunity. 

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