The case for supporting local journalism: A civil society
President Biden signaled in his State of the Union address that some elements of his ill-fated Build Back Better bill may be individually revived. It’s a good way to find out which ones might draw bipartisan support. One that could — and should — is aimed at supporting a founding aspect of America democracy: local journalism, which has been drastically hollowed out as its advertising revenue has migrated to Facebook and Google and the term “news desert” has emerged.
Unwisely incorporated into Build Back Better, when that seemed likely to pass, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act would use the tax code as a way to support the local reporting that makes it possible for voters to know what’s going on at their city council or school board — not to mention the fate of high school sports teams that do so much to bind communities. Most notably, a House version of the bill, filed by Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), has attracted 69 co-sponsors, including 14 Republicans — no easy feat in today’s Washington.
The bill’s three major provisions would support local newspaper payrolls, through a potential $25,000 tax credit for reporter salaries; provide up to a $5,000 tax credit for businesses that advertise in local journalism outlets; and a tax credit to cover up to 80 percent of a newspaper subscription. Full disclosure: I subscribe to four local newspapers still home-delivered and so I might realize a modest windfall. And my own background includes a first job at an Upstate New York daily paper, which once had five news bureaus — and today mainly reprints national stories, like so many papers that have cut costs and their “news holes,” leaving citizens in the dark and local officials less accountable.
It’s never an easy call to suggest government support for private sector firms. Doing so can easily go wrong — as we’ve seen in states’ support for selling solar panel power to the grid, an effort to save the planet that raises energy costs for low-income households, or Iowa’s ethanol industry, bolstered by a requirement that all drivers buy the product, which turns out to consume more energy to produce than its use saves. One wonders, as well, what the limiting principle here might be. Should we encourage local agriculture through a tax break for those who buy at farmers’ markets? A tax rebate for products not packaged in the plastics that are swarming in the seas? There may be a shortage of good local news reporting but there’s no shortage of good causes with zealous supporters.
The case for supporting local journalism is different and stronger. It’s the case for what’s called civil society — a shared sense of community that invites participation; a shared sense of issues that a community must confront and seek to resolve; a means to celebrate the accomplishments of local citizens and to honor their lives. My first job at the Middletown, N.Y., Times-Herald Record was that of writing obituaries — and it was made clear to me that doing so was important. One obit turned into a major news story, when an immigrant family in the Catskills insisted on burying its paterfamilias in its front yard, and stirred up local opposition mixing public health and ethnic tension concerns.
In other words, good local journalism provides what economists call positive externalities — general benefits that can’t be captured fully by a newspaper’s owner. (They also face the so-called free rider problem, since one issue can be widely shared.)
Thoughtfully, the provisions of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act phase out over five years. Local journalism outlets — both “legacy” and new digital sites — should get not ongoing life support but some time to figure out a new business model. The good news is that many are starting to do just that. In Santa Cruz County, Calif., Lookout Local, an all-digital operation, is finding that local advertisers can reach customers with the help of “branded content” — video commercials reliably distinguishable from actual news. In Massachusetts, the venerable Berkshire Eagle gets indirect support from a regional community foundation (for example, for a speakers series). Chicago public radio has notably purchased the Chicago Sun-Times and merged their newsrooms, while local New York public radio powerhouse WNYC partners with the digital Gotham Gazette. Public radio receives some government support already, of course, but still faces a demanding market test because of its need for local donations. Axios has begun an Axios Local initiative that would place reporters in cities around the country — although it’s starting with just two journalists and would not replace locally-based enterprises.
The local journalism act is not perfect. Large chains that have helped hollow out newsrooms likely will find ways to benefit. Newspaper editorial pages getting a tax break may find it harder to call out other subsidies. More broadly, the legislation overlooks the fact that taxpayers already direct around $450 million toward journalism, in part to support public broadcasting. Although most of those funds are directed to local stations, legislation requires most of it to go for television, when public radio has emerged as a news powerhouse, and local stations send much of the funding back to Washington to buy national programming. Fifty-five years after passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, the local news crisis can be the occasion to take stock of that project — an undertaking that could well attract even more bipartisan support.
Nor should we overlook the fact that politicians don’t look to hold news conferences that no one attends. Ultimately, that may be what really gives the Local Journalism Sustainability Act the support it deserves.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. From 2014-2018, he served on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board of directors. He is the author of “Who Killed Civil Society?”(Encounter Books, 2019).