Bill Addressing Plight of Local Newspapers Introduced in Albany

State Sen. Shelley Mayer is part of the contingent of Westchester legislators who are supporting the New York Local News Act, which aims to provide grants and partnerships to help local news outlets survive.

Last week two identical bills were introduced in the state legislature in hopes of combatting the growing decline and disappearance of local newspapers.

The New York Local News Act was introduced in the state Senate and Assembly by Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse) and Assemblywoman Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca), respectively. The measure proposes support to local news outlets in New York through grants and partnerships with SUNY and CUNY campuses and local non-profit organizations.

It also would create a commission with an executive director and program officers to provide funding to support local news outlets.

“I look forward to see what kind of collaborative efforts can be established between colleges and universities and local news outlets,” said state Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers). “At the same time the very clear language in the bill is that a grant this commission provides does not include any government oversight over content. This bill is about the expertise at the college and university levels to partner with local news outlets.”

The dramatic generational decline in local news has seen the closure of 25 percent of newspapers nationwide in the last 15 years. In the United States, more than 1,700 papers – 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies – have gone under since 2004, according to a study conducted by Penny Abernathy, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Roughly half of the remaining 1,283 dailies and 5,829 weeklies are located in small and rural communities. The vast majority, about 5,500, have a circulation of less than 15,000.

The pandemic dealt a serious blow to newspapers through the U.S., shuttering papers mainly in small communities.

Currently in Westchester County there are nine newspapers and only one, The Journal News, publishes in print daily. According to Abernathy’s study, New York, Illinois and Texas lost the most weeklies.

“I certainly believe in local newspapers because that’s where folks find out what’s happening in their communities,” said Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining). “Local news covers sports, community activities and board meetings, all are so important. Keeping our local papers going is a must for democracy. We won’t have a country if we don’t have local news.”

The Examiner reached out to Assemblyman Kevin Byrne (R-Mahopac) but he declined to comment.

Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D-Pleasantville) said he was wary of how corporate media consolidates news to exclude much local news.

“I support this bill and the one caution is that we need to be careful about providing government resources because control follows money,” Abinanti said. “Local media is like local roads – everybody uses the highways but those of us who use local roads are very dependent on those local roads.”

The legislation includes requirements for a metric to ensure editorial independence and effective evaluation.   

Also co-sponsoring the bill is Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford).

“Recognizing the severe financial plight the local press has suffered through the pandemic, I am pleased to co-sponsor this bill which goes to the heart of saving our local press,” Burdick said. “A free, independent and robust press is a cornerstone of democracy.”

Throughout the country, some smaller and alternative papers that have been able to remain open have shrunk and are almost unrecognizable. Others, Abernathy’s study cited, are merging with nearby publications signaling a rapid decline of news dedicated to local communities and creating an “evaporation of institutional knowledge and the loss of local jobs.”

“Vigorous and dedicated local news sources help provide important information to residents while encouraging participation in community life,” said state Sen. Peter Harckham (D-Lewisboro). “I fully support Sen. May’s bill to establish a state commission on local news to ensure the continued presence of these vital businesses around New York. Broad access to information is a unifying factor in that it cannot be undervalued, so efforts to maintain its role in our society should be advanced.”

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a former journalist, said local news a vital resource in a community.

“I understand the importance of its survival during these challenging times,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I commend Sen. Rachel May for her efforts, and I look forward to discussing it further with our majority conference when we return to session in January.”

Nationally, there has been bipartisan support in Congress for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which proposes a series of tax credits rather than direct grants to financially support local newspapers, digital publications and other local news organizations. The bill proposes a tax credit of up to $250 for local newspaper subscribers or donors to a local nonprofit news organization; a five-year tax credit for local news organizations for each local reporter on their payroll; and a five-year tax credit that provides small businesses an incentive to advertise with local newspapers, radio and television stations. 

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