In the trying times brought on by a pandemic, the public good of solid local journalism becomes paramount. Yet as communities rely on their local newspaper to equip them with accurate information on public health, available resources and government action, the coronavirus crisis exacts a crushing toll on a pillar of sensemaking in the worst possible time.
Bold measures are needed to recognize and preserve local journalism's crucial role in the democracy and vitality of communities nationwide. To this end, a glimmer of hope exists in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (H.R. 7640), a bipartisan legislative effort in the U.S. House of Representatives to lift up local newspapers and the communities they serve.
While countless sectors have been rocked by COVID-19, local newspapers were already struggling with economic challenges before the viral recession. As these struggles have exacerbated, the outlook is bleak for many community newspapers, and their readerships, across the country.
According to the Nieman Journalism Lab, the decision of Casper Star-Tribune to no longer print on Mondays and Tuesdays represents a grim milestone in modern U.S. history: Starting later this month, an entire state — Wyoming — will have zero daily newspapers. COVID-19's chilling effect on local journalism has been felt in Vermont as well, with the weekly Waterbury Record publishing its last issue in March, and the Addison County Independent cutting back its print edition from twice a week to once.
To mitigate these casualties and their downstream effects on surrounding communities, H.R. 7640 offers a three-pronged solution that could give a badly needed boost to the small newsrooms that serve American democracy one neighborhood at a time.
First, it would offer a tax credit to local news media organizations for the compensation of journalists. The credit is aimed solely at local outlets, defined as print or online publications that primarily produce news-related content and reach a majority of their readership within the publication's state of operation or within 200 miles. Legacy media institutions will weather this storm; where help is needed most is in the small newsrooms with razor-thin margins providing trustworthy, localized information to readers who can't get it elsewhere.
Second, the bill would give tax credits to small businesses to encourage advertising in local newspapers. This acknowledges the symbiosis between newspapers and their surrounding local economies, and would elegantly aid struggling small businesses in a way that would bolster a vital slice of revenue for newspapers: ads.
Third, the bill would support local newspapers by empowering their most important resource — readers. By giving every taxpayer a credit up to $250 to spend on subscriptions to local news publications, the bill would give people, regardless of financial standing, a way to support the cash-strapped local publications that they feel serve them best.
The tax credits proposed in the bill would all have five-year sunset provisions, and as such would not be permanent subsidies to news publications but merely a temporary, targeted COVID relief plan for community journalism.
It should be acknowledged that we are using our editorial page to lobby for help from the federal government. This is because, beyond the fate of just one newspaper, the lifeblood of local democracy across America is at stake. Now more than ever, communities need locally based journalism to provide up-to-date, relevant and accurate information, as well as to hold local, state and federal government accountable for its responsiveness and effectiveness in the face of crisis.
H.R. 7640 was introduced by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Washington Republican, and boasts 18 bipartisan co-sponsors. In a time where few issues break the wave of political polarization, this bill represents something that members of both parties in the House can get behind: Local journalism is an essential resource worth preserving. While a standalone bill that favors news media might not have stellar odds to get signed by President Donald Trump, the measure as is could alternatively be tucked into the grand bargain of a larger COVID relief package from Congress, where it might stand better chance of passage.
Either way, communities need local newspapers, and local newspapers are in desperate need of support. We urge Congress to recognize this and move on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.