In recent years, as the American newspaper industry has been steadily sundered by a failing business model, politicians and media pundits have periodically suggested some sort of government support to help keep local news outlets alive.
For the most part, their intentions were good, and desperate times may call for desperate measures. But the idea of government support — intervention, if you will — has been anathema to many journalism professionals, educators and other media pundits. The fear, not entirely unfounded, is that government help means government control of some kind. That is antithetical to a free press.
But so is extinction, which is closer than many people think. Internet incursions, changing demographics and self-inflicted strategic mistakes have sent the industry into a tailspin. Hundreds of newspapers have disappeared, shrunk to skeletal remains, or been absorbed into larger organizations and gutted for their assets. Thousands of journalists lost their jobs, careers and sense of purpose.
While there are those who don’t lament the industry’s decimation, the consequences have been severe. Studies show that where local news outlets close and are not meaningfully replaced, civic engagement declines. People know less about what is happening in their communities, or what their local governments are up to. Connections fade. Fake news seeps into the vacuum left by mainstream journalism’s decline.
The problem with most government assistance proposals of the past was that they focused on directly buttressing the news organizations’ operations, with the implication of conditions for that support. What was needed was a program that included something for everyone: publishers, readers and advertisers.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, our Fourth District congressman, and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona have come up with a bipartisan plan which just might do that.
Newhouse and Kirkpatrick recently reintroduced the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, designed to shore up community journalism where it’s most needed. No cash is involved. The legislation’s effectiveness would rely on the appeal of tax credits.
“For many rural communities like ours in Central Washington, local news is the only way to receive important information and updates. Unfortunately, many of our locally-owned newspapers have been struggling to make ends meet,” Newhouse said in a press release. “By providing tax credits for readers and small businesses and by empowering our local journalists, we can begin to help our small newspapers remain resilient and continue to provide in-depth perspectives that inform their readership regarding local current events.”
“Local jJournalism is a bedrock pillar of communities across the United States,” Kirkpatrick added. “Unfortunately, journalistic endeavors throughout the country are facing major economic struggles that put the future of many publications in serious jeopardy. These struggles existed before COVID, but the pandemic only made them more severe. We need to make sure these publications can sustain themselves through this crisis and beyond.”
Three tax credits are included in the proposal. One would help local newspapers to hire and adequately pay journalists. A second tax credit would provide incentives to subscribers. The third would incentivize small businesses to advertise in local newspapers (and broadcast outlets, so it might also benefit KTRT). The bill is aimed at smaller journalistic enterprises: The staff support credits would be available only to organizations with fewer than 750 employees, which would not include the major newspaper chains. As one description of the bill explains, “The primary content of such publication is original content derived from primary sources and relating to news and current events. Such publication primarily serves the needs of a regional or local community.”
The bill’s credits would not be permanent, but would expire in five years, and would only work if the community gets behind it. Readers and advertisers would have a vital role in preserving local journalism. The government would not have a say in operations.
“It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up, to help them [local news outlets] find a sustainable path forward,” Newhouse told the Seattle Times recently.
According to the press release, the proposed legislation has the support of journalism and newspaper industry leaders around the country.
I wouldn’t claim to be a “leader,” but count me in. The Methow Valley News is the only paper in the county that is not part of a newspaper group. In the past year, as our advertising revenues nosedived, we would have been hard-pressed to survive without two Paycheck Protection Program loans, which are in fact government handouts. PPP worked for us. We did not lay anyone off and managed to keep producing a worthy weekly product. But I would rather count on the community’s participation and support for a plan that could benefit readers and advertisers through tax credits. We would all be in it together, with shared goals.