OLYMPIA – Small towns around Washington state that have seen local news wither will get a civic shot in the arm from new funding in the state’s budget, passed Sunday.

The appropriation of $2.4 million over the next two years, championed by Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines) and Sen. Marko Liias (D-Everett), establishes a new public-interest journalism fellowship program in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, which will support reporting focused on topics essential to civic life.

“A strong press is fundamental to a thriving democracy,” said Keiser, a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and veteran of newsrooms in Oregon, Colorado, and Washington. “Yet Washington has lost 20% of its newspapers over the past two decades. That means in many communities, school board meetings aren’t being covered, court proceedings aren’t being scrutinized, and local government actions aren’t being questioned.

“I know what it means for the press corps to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire, and it’s an important part of our democratic process that we can’t let slip away in towns around our state.”

Modeled on the recently established California Local News Fellowship, the program at WSU is expected to take in eight recent graduates per year for two-year reporting stints at existing news outlets around the state in areas that lack local reporting, at a salary of $55,000 a year. Upon completion, they will earn a certificate in digital media innovation from WSU. Half of the fellows will be WSU graduates. The first class could begin as early as 2024.

“Journalism is foundational to a functioning democracy,” Liias said. “Journalists play a critical role in uncovering the truth, holding the powerful accountable, and informing the public about what is happening in their communities. This crucial work must continue, and this fellowship ensures that it does.”

The fellowship program builds on existing workforce training efforts in the Murrow College of Communication. The annual Rural Plunge provides an experiential learning opportunity in which all journalism students visit and cover surrounding communities.

The Murrow News, founded in 2011, produces award-winning student journalism for professional news outlets reaching local, regional, and national audiences.

“Responsible journalism contributes to a stronger and healthier civic life,” said Bruce Pinkleton, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. “We believe this program will be a real benefit to citizens and to the communities in which they live and work.”

“The project aligns with our mission as a land-grant institution to serve the state,” said Benjamin Shors, chair of the department of Media and Journalism Production, who will be overseeing the fellowship. “We want to increase news coverage of underrepresented communities from rural to urban, and we want to better prepare the next generation of journalists to understand and report responsibly on these communities.”