Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Rebuilding Robust Local News Industry Requires Public Action
Examiner Editor-in-Chief Martin Wilbur remembers a moment from his cub reporter days in Brooklyn when the potency and importance of the local press emerged for him in vivid display.
He was assigned to cover a story for his weekly newspaper about corrupt security guards who were arrested for looting stores they’d been deployed to protect.
This being the New York City of the 1980s, Martin savvily asked an investigator whether authorities believed the break-ins were orchestrated by organized crime.
The investigator said no, Martin noted the denial and the official was then quickly fired after what proved to be a lie printed in the small publication where he worked.
While local newspaper journalists still ask questions like this every day, on all manner of issues, far fewer questions are being asked and answered as the nation’s reporting ranks have shrunk to once unimaginably small numbers.
Over the past almost 20 years, more than 2,000 newspapers have perished as a result of a technological revolution. The old business model died but a new one wasn’t born.
Survival of the Fittest
Most surviving publications and digital startups are only able to sustain staff sizes a fraction of the size of yesteryear.
I asked Martin if he believed the severity of the news industry crisis demanded public action. He acknowledged he’s not exactly a neutral source – but that doesn’t make his observations any less true or relevant.
“I think past experience has shown that news deserts don’t benefit very many people except for maybe some unscrupulous politicians,” he said.
While the industry emergency was already a heavyweight threat pre-pandemic, the virus delivered a knockout punch for wobbling stragglers and put hundreds of other local news outlets on the mat for an eight count.
But it also served to awaken the world about the significance of the problem, and the effort to refortify our industry might be poised for something of a moment.
Last week, as a new member of a new nonprofit organization named Rebuild Local News, I eagerly accepted an invitation to join a coalition meeting, where the group’s leaders reviewed the status of its various priorities.
Quick apology to our newsletter readers for the rehash but let me borrow from a primer I e-mailed to our subscriber audience last week. The nonpartisan nonprofit’s top priorities include but are not limited to:
- Tax credits for hiring local reporters
- Tax credits for small businesses that advertise with local news
- Tax credits for consumers to subscribe or donate to local news
- Government advertising with local news instead of social media
The longer list of proposed solutions is far more nuanced and too detailed to chronicle here. But, in a nutshell, the organization also champions initiatives designed to make it easier to build sustainable nonprofit news outlets and favors policy changes that would seek more local ownership of local news organizations.
A former George W. Bush administration official participated in last week’s Rebuild Local News meeting, and is part of the broader effort, helping to illustrate how the issue could, at least theoretically, garner significant bipartisan support. Rural, conservative communities are among the most severely impacted by the industry death spiral.
But stakeholders aren’t kidding themselves. Everyone knows that clearing the hurdle of likely Republican opposition remains a tall task.
In addition to federal action, the Rebuild Local News group is also lobbying on the state level, even launching an activity tracker to monitor local efforts. Go to the organization’s website at RebuildLocalNews.org to dig through the details.
For instance, the group is championing legislation in Maryland; just last month, a hearing was held in the state for a bill that would create a refundable tax credit for local businesses to advertise in local news outlets.
New York State of Mind
Here in New York, State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D-Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner (D-Malta) introduced the Local Journalism Sustainability Act in 2021.
The bill provides a tax credit to readers for subscribing to local news as well as a payroll tax credit to publishers for employing journalists. It was reintroduced last month, on Feb. 1.
Woerner told me work is underway to build co-sponsorship for the bill. She said she’s hoping to move it through the legislative process this year.
“The problem the bill is trying to solve is the financial challenges that have led locally-owned news organizations to sell to national chains and reduce the number of local journalists who cover what’s happening in the community, or to close the doors and shut the publication down completely,” Woerner stated Sunday night. “My concern is that without local journalists, who is covering town board meetings, school board meetings, good news in the community and challenging situations? A strong community needs the transparency and accountability that local journalists provide, and they need a source of information about the community happenings that they can trust.”
I stumbled upon a related news nugget in my phone conversation with Assemblyman Matt Slater (R-Yorktown) Sunday night when he said he already had a meeting scheduled with Woerner for this week, and he now plans to tell her he’d like to sign onto the bill.
New support from a popular Republican lawmaker is no small development for the prospects of the bill.
“The reality is that there’s, I think, a lot of skepticism of the media, but when you look at where you can get valid information from, it’s the local news sources, it’s not the big conglomerates anymore,” Slater said. “I think that brings an automatic level of validity to the conversation. And so it needs to be protected and we need to make sure that our local papers and our local media news sources are able to continue to thrive. And so I think it makes sense.”
While Rebuild Local News founder Steve Waldman sympathizes with the discomfort many journalists understandably experience with any policy that links the industry’s prospects to public action, he’s emphasized in his writing not just the size and scope of the crisis but also history.
As he’s explained, the Post Office Act of 1792, for example, provided a lower postage rate for newspapers.
“In the past, government has devised policies that protected editorial independence,” he wrote in a piece last month for Columbia Journalism Review.
“The Founding Fathers believed it was crucial to have not just the right to a free press but the reality of a functioning free press,” added Waldman, who is also the co-founder of the incredible Report for America organization. “So they decided to give a massive subsidy to newspapers.”
Is it reasonable to harbor some concern about whether public policy solutions to the systemic problem could influence future publishing decisions by some weak-kneed news organizations? Of course.
But the status quo is a disaster, despite some noteworthy recent progress, and there’s not enough philanthropy, ad revenue, and subscription dollars combined to fix the crisis, despite the public’s unquenchable thirst and need for professionally-reported, fact-checked, high-quality local journalism.
More to the point, these initiatives undoubtedly serve the public good.
Prescription for Success
The types of ethical quandaries wrought by government involvement are ones most credible local news organizations already navigate successfully anyway; think campaign advertising, a staple of the industry in America since the 18th century.
Granted, there’s no perfect prescription. But inaction will only lead to a continued and worsening disaster.
“There are often incentives to industries that the government wants to maintain, both in previous generations and even now,” Martin noted in a phone conversation on Saturday. “It could be the auto industry in Michigan or the steel industry in western Pennsylvania. There have often been incentives to support industries, depending on the importance of that industry in the view of the local leaders of the day. So I don’t have an ethical problem with it.”
Just this weekend, Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford) directed his legislative chief to proceed in submitting a request to add him as a co-sponsor of Hoylman-Sigal and Woerner’s Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
“Look, we have The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, but they’re not going to be reporting on things that are important to folks at the local level, the county level, the state level,” Burdick told me in a phone interview on Saturday. “So people really do come to rely, and rightly so, on local journalism. And it’s very important to democracy. And so I think it’s critical that we do what we can to support the continuation of local journalists.”
I couldn’t be more biased on the issue. I know it’s nearly impossible to cover the contours of the debate without appearing incredibly self-serving.
But I also know just as strongly how this sort of ambitious, aggressive public action is America’s best hope for creating a sturdy foundation for the free press – a new infrastructure that fortifies robust local journalism in communities across the country, not just here in our little slice of the Westchester/Putnam world.
The Examiner, for our part, despite relative success and solid enough post-pandemic health, has always been kept together with stick and tape, ever since we scratched our way onto the scene more than 15 years ago.
Not a day has passed since our launch nearly 5,700 days ago (not that I’m counting) where we haven’t been short-staffed to some degree, like most small- and mid-sized newspapers of the era.
Tax credits and other policies designed to sustain and grow small-town newsrooms across the United States would mean important stories getting published that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day.
The size of our staff has always been dwarfed by the size of our responsibility – ditto for most local newspaper survivors and newcomers of the past two decades.
Lights, Camera, Legal Action
Think of it this way: Here in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul included $700 million for an expanded film industry tax credit in the proposed executive budget she unveiled about a month and a half ago. There’s currently lobbying underway for the governor to include just a fraction of that figure – $150 million – to aid the local news industry with tax credits.
I love and appreciate movies just as much as the next guy. And the film industry tax credit genuinely sounds like a prudent ongoing investment, from what I’ve read.
But it seems impossible to make any coherent public policy argument that says the entertainment business should receive $700 million in incentives from the state ($280 million more than before) while local journalism should receive $0. (Of course, some might argue that no industries should receive any tax credits at all but that’s not the framework or reality of the contemporary debate.)
“Gov. Hochul will review the legislation if it passes both houses,” Janine Kava, a public information official for the governor, told me on Sunday. “Based on an online search I did, it’s currently pending in the Senate’s Budget and Revenue Committee.”
Kava did not reply to my follow-up request for comment about the possibility of the governor including the tax credit in the budget process.
In my interview with Burdick, he stressed how the policy proposals are “not trying to favor any particular newspaper or particular media outlet.”
“What we’re trying to do is to favor the survival of local journalists,” he explained.
While the failure to enact the Local Journalism Sustainability Act on the federal level last year fueled some concern over the public policy movement dying a premature death, it has seemed to produce the opposite effect.
The earlier lobbying efforts of Congress built coalitions and excitement. Much of that energy is now being poured into state-level advocacy.
That said, optimism remains about eventual congressional action, with Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington still apparently interested in seeing her Local Journalism Sustainability Act through, in one form or another. She introduced the proposed legislation with colleagues Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) in July 2021.
The bill allows individual taxpayers a credit of up to $250 in any taxable year for subscriptions to one or more local newspapers and, separately, would give publishers a payroll credit for wages paid to local news journalists.
It would also provide eligible small businesses with a tax credit for advertising in local newspapers or with a local news broadcaster.
In 2020, Cantwell released a comprehensive report that shows how abusive practices by tech platforms have strangled news industry revenue opportunities, creating unfair competition in the marketplace.
“We shouldn’t let regional and community news die as local newspapers and broadcasters adjust to digital delivery because online giants are unfairly leveraging the advertising market against them,” Cantwell stated at the time in a press release.
On the House side, the bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act was proposed by Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona and Republican Dan Newhouse of Washington. Our area’s rookie Republican congressman, Mike Lawler, was not available to discuss the issue by our Monday deadline.
The economic challenges the industry confronts are complicated even further by the fact that prominent elected officials, like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, are currently seeking to wield their power to cripple the press.
For instance, the potential Republican presidential candidate reportedly supports a possible state measure that would presume all anonymous sources in news stories to be false for the purposes of defamation lawsuits, a Columbia Journalism Review article explained, also outlining a bevy of other hostile initiatives DeSantis is peddling to weaken the press.
Chillingly, DeSantis and like-minded political bomb-throwers are agitating for the eventual overturn of The New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision that ultimately required public figures to prove malicious intent in defamation suits.
If DeSantis and his allies are successful in seeing Sullivan overturned, it would end free speech as we know it in America, for liberals and conservatives.
DeSantis’s wing of the party should be careful what they wish for. They’re unintentionally advocating for a world where insufficient “wokeness” — to borrow the overused and bastardized term — could ultimately create legal jeopardy for conservative news outlets and individuals.
Right now, in a nutshell, malicious intent is punished but human error is not. That could change.
All the politics aside, it’s important to keep an eye on the bottom line: the dearth of credible local news in small towns and cities across the country.
State Sen. Peter Harckham (D-South Salem) said it well in a prepared statement on Sunday.
“We need a robust Fourth Estate in our communities to protect our democracy and hold different levels of government accountable,” the senator said.
“Strengthening the well-being of our community newspapers and news sources will keep our residents informed and apprised of how elected officials, like myself, are serving their constituents,” Harckham also remarked.
The question is what to do about preserving that service in a meaningful way.
And after a generation of industry hand-wringing, wrong turns and decline this millennium, it appears as if we might finally be nearing some possible systemic solutions.