Comment: Congress poised to give local news a needed boost

Support is growing for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, with a tax credit for local subscriptions.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

When I published a book last summer about the troubles of the local news industry, I intended it to be a loud alarm bell, not a prescription for how to solve the growing problem. (I didn’t have very good answers.)

But I found out quickly that once readers understood the scope of what was happening, and the dire effects on our society, they wanted solutions.

“OK, this is bad. Now how do we fix it?” I was asked some version of this question over and over, as people learned local newspapers were especially threatened, that thousands of them had shut their doors in recent years or been scooped up by vulturelike hedge funds, that many had cut their reporting staffs to the bone to stay profitable.

They also learned that when local journalism declines or disappears — when news deserts develop — citizens become more politically polarized, less civically engaged and they lose a major way to hold their public officials accountable.

The whole situation is a disaster and a tragedy.

Now — and finally — some meaningful help may be on the way.

Bipartisan support in Congress has gathered for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, and its supporters believe there’s a decent chance it will be a part of the huge spending bill that Congress is now focusing on. (The House bill is supported by nine of Washington state’s 10 House members; the Senate version was introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and is supported by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The Herald Editorial Board last wrote in support of the legislation in May.)

The proposal, which provides a series of tax credits rather than direct grants, is intended to give local newspapers, digital-only publications and other local news organizations a chance to be financially viable as they figure out how to make their way in the new digital world.

Similar versions of the legislation have been introduced in the House and Senate. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., are the House co-sponsors. The Senate co-sponsors are Cantwell, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Ron. Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. This week, Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist West Virginia Democrat, decided to get on board, too. (The House version has about a dozen Republican supporters; the Senate version is still without Republican backers, but supporters hope that will change.)

One provision is a tax credit of up to $250 for consumers to either subscribe to a local newspaper or donate to a local nonprofit news organization. Another is a five-year tax credit for local news organizations for each journalist on their payrolls. The third is a five-year tax credit that gives small businesses a tax incentive to advertise with local newspapers and local radio and television stations.

“The bill’s support is freakishly broad, both ideologically and politically,” says Steven Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America and the founder of a coalition of about 3,000 newsrooms backing the effort.

It gets Republican and centrist support, he said, because it is “bottom-up, market-oriented, temporary, nonbureaucratic, content-neutral and entirely focused on local news,” Waldman told me. And while some progressives might have preferred grants instead of tax credits, they like this in part because it is structured so that smaller news organizations can benefit, including those that serve communities of color.

The bill isn’t perfect, by any means. Because it is “content-neutral,” as Waldman says, it runs the risk of benefiting hyperpartisan aggregation sites (sometimes called “pink slime” sites) that mimic local newspapers but often are promoting right-wing agendas.

And some big thinkers in journalism, like author and professor Nikki Usher, dislike the bill because, she told me, “codifying what counts as a news organization at the federal level is liable to get messy quickly.” And, she notes, the legislation benefits more affluent news consumers because “the wealthy are the people who are itemizing their deductions.”

Others simply want the government to stay away from news altogether: Let the market determine which news organizations live and die, given the potential risks to editorial independence.

For many journalists, the notion of government funding has long been a kind of dangerous “third rail,” not worth the risks.

I used to be in that camp myself. Who wants public officials or government bureaucrats interfering in news, I always felt. No, thanks.

But having watched the grim consequences of local news’s worsening decline over the past two decades, I think the Local Journalism Sustainability Act has real value.

I’m convinced, in part, by the enthusiasm of people like Waldman and Jim Friedlich, the executive director of the Lenfest Institute, the nonprofit organization that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer. Friedlich estimates that a qualifying midsized regional news organization with 50 journalists would receive roughly a million dollars in payroll tax credit to help retain local reporters, and he calls the act “potentially the most important legislation for local news in the last hundred years.”

“Sounds like hyperbole,” he admits, “but it’s smart, efficient, market-driven and extraordinarily well-timed to counter the growing crisis in local news.”

The bill’s provisions, should they become reality, are not going to solve the local news problem. It stems, after all, from irrevocable changes in the way news organizations (especially newspapers) have been funded for many decades: largely through local advertising.

But the act could provide some relief to news organizations that are gasping for breath as they try to refigure their business models. And, if they survive, communities would benefit. Washington state’s Newhouse, the Republican House co-sponsor, made that exact point in a recent podcast.

“Local journalism, no matter what form it’s in, truly does contribute to the fabric of a community,” he said. “You’re not going to find too many large-market sources of news reporting on your local city council or high school basketball scores.”

An imperfect solution? No doubt.

But given all the factors, it’s well worth a try.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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