Tuesday, March 28, 2017

W.Va. financial crisis threatens funding for the state's largest news source, public broadcasting

A state financial crisis in West Virginia is posing the greatest threat to its public news media, Catherine Moore reports for Columbia Journalism Review. "A state-level proposal to zero out half of its $10 million budget had West Virginia Public Broadcasting on the defensive this month."

"West Virginia is not a unique case," Moore writes. "Other cash-strapped, low-density rural places like Mississippi and Alaska have seen recent proposals for state-level cuts to public broadcasting too."

With West Virginia being portrayed as Trump Country Ground Zero, and the president's proposed budget includes eliminating funds for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, you might expect that the rift was ideological. But in West Virginia, "the $4.6 million cut was proposed by Democratic governor Jim Justice—a billionaire coal operator who coincidentally owes $4.4 million in back taxes to the state—and some Republicans in the legislature have been quick to come to the network’s defense," Moore writes.

"Instead of partisan rancor, the debate over public broadcasting here comes back to the state’s underlying financial crisis. West Virginia has seen its coal-tax revenues plummet in recent years, the result of a perfect storm of factors that includes cheap natural gas and competition from western coal reserves. And in a place where it was once taboo for politicians to discuss economic diversification for fear of alienating the coal vote, the legislature has been caught unprepared to fill its yearly $500 million budget hole."

"WVPB is the only television and radio network devoted to in-depth coverage that reaches all 55 counties of this geographically and culturally diverse state," Moore writes. "Some remote areas have no local news coverage to speak of." Maryanne Reed, dean of the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University, told Moore, “If WVPB were to go away, I’m not sure who or what would fill the vacuum."

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