Can Congress Save Local News? Should it?
As I write this post, I can hear reporters everywhere, including myself, groaning in protest at just the thought of government money being used to haul local journalism out of the sinkhole it has fallen into.
Taking federal funds would taint coverage of the very organizations and institutions that we cover, the argument goes, and publishers would have to answer to government officials about stories or even hold back stories that exposed anything negative about them.
But the situation has become so dire that by last year, 2,100 local newspapers across the country had ceased to exist, according to the News Desert Project, a series of reports by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and the Media.
And that was before the pandemic.
The irony of course is that people look to local media during a crisis, and according to Penny Abernathy of the News Desert Project, trust in local media is much higher than in national media.
Margaret Sullivan, author of Ghosting the News and a media critic at the Washington Post, said while local radio and television do a fine job covering communities, newspapers fill a different and specific void.
“Local newspapers particularly have a history of showing up at every board meeting, maybe even the committee meetings,” she said. “And working these sources over time, and being able to get at, through this detailed beat and local coverage, how people’s tax dollars are being spent.”
Despite the merits of local journalism, COVID-19 has smashed the industry to the point of near extinction. The virus has worsened the negative financial trends that have beset journalism --- specifically newspapers.
Over 36,000 journalists in the United States have either lost their jobs, been furloughed or had their pay cut since the pandemic broke out earlier this year, media analysts say.
Even before the pandemic, print revenues at U.S. papers dropped by 62 percent as billions of dollars in advertising revenue moved to digital platforms such as Google, Facebook and Craigslist. Newspaper employment in the U.S. dropped by 51 percent between 2008 and 2019.
This summer, lawmakers introduced a bill that would provide tax credits for people who subscribe to newspapers or other local media, businesses that advertise in local newspapers and newspapers that staff their newsrooms with journalists who cover the community.
The tax credits aren’t permanent and sunset after five years.
Although temporary, this legislation provides a lifeline for everyone affected by the pandemic: local readers, local businesses and local news organizations.
“Before the pandemic, journalism was a sort of pet interest on the Hill,” said Viktorya Vilk of PEN America, a news and free speech advocacy organization. “But I think the tide has turned and Congress is seriously talking about ways to help.”
Late last month, three senators introduced The Future of Local News Commission Act that calls for the establishment of a formal commission to examine the decline of local papers as well as provide recommendations to stop the bleeding.
“Local news is foundational to our democracy, but a convergence of forces – from consolidation, to social media to Covid-19 – has pushed newsrooms across America to the brink,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors.
News Advocacy groups buzzed with praise and encouragement for the legislation and other bills that would boost local journalism.
NewsGuild-CWA President Jon Schleuss is urging Senate leaders to support the Local News and Emergency Information Act of 2020.
This bipartisan bill would expand eligibility under the Paycheck Protection Program allowing publications that are part of large chains to qualify for assistance.
“The importance of small- and mid-sized news outlets has never been more starkly apparent than in the past few months, as our country fights through a pandemic and an economic downturn,” Schleuss wrote to Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
But is accepting government help a good thing for an industry that is tasked with objectivity and watch-dog responsibility over all of government?
That’s a legitimate concern, media policy experts say. But the truth is that government has always cut newspapers a break dating back to colonial times when Congress set low postal rates for newspapers, said Steve Waldman in a Poynter news article.
“The founders did indeed decide to have low postal costs for newspaper at significant cost to the government,” Waldman wrote.
The goal was to encourage the growth of a free press, which they viewed as essential to the development of democracy.
There are two keys to the policy’s success.
“First, it was content neutral. It lowered the postal fees for all newspapers, both scurrilous Jeffersonian rags and fulminating Federalist newspapers alike,” Waldmen wrote. “And second, it was formulaic, based on distance, not merit. It didn’t involve the presidentially-appointed postmaster general reviewing grant applications.”
Despite the initial negative reaction to government assistance, many newspapers received money from the March stimulus package that included the Payroll Protection Program.
Paula Routly, the publisher of a free weekly in Burlington, Vermont, had to lay off seven people because of the virus and declining ad revenue. But she
got money from the Payroll Protection Program and was able to hire back five of them.
Accepting the money was not a conflict for Routly.
“It’s perfect for newspapers” she told the New York Times.
Other dailies have taken cash including the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate and the Seattle Times.
“Journalism is in the triage mode right now,” said Ann Marie Lipinski of the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them."
--- Thomas Jefferson