Holiday gift that everyone would appreciate — more local news

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With the announcement by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that he will not be supporting President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) legislation, its highly uncertain future lies ahead in the coming weeks. The prospects for reviving the downward curve for local journalism looks equally bleak, too.

That’s because BBB included a provision known as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act that would have provided for a 50 percent payroll tax credit on the salaries of local journalists up to $50,000 in the first year after passage, along with a 30 percent payroll tax credit for the following four years. Various local news outlets, including ones owned by newspaper chains and even relatively prosperous local TV stations, were covered by this legislation, which created some controversy. The overall price tag would have been $1.67 billion over five years, representing a relatively small amount of BBB’s projected $1.75 trillion budget.

The problem addressed in BBB remains, however, and is backed up by sobering data regarding the declining health of local journalism, which serves as a bedrock of American democracy.

According to media columnist Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, “[b]etween 2005 and the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 newspapers closed their doors. Since COVID struck, at least 80 more papers have gone out of business, as have an undetermined number of other local publications.” Updated figures for all of 2021 are sure to show that this trend continues apace.

Visiting Professor Penny Muse Abernathy at Northwestern University’s Medill School collected data that showed “[b]y 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.S. counties, half had just one local print newspaper of any kind. Only a third had a daily newspaper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.” This sharp decline has led to the phenomenon of ‘news deserts’ — a commonly-used term that describes areas where coverage of the community by local news outlets is minimal or nonexistent.

Absent the financial relief that BBB promised to local media outlet payrolls, other legislative options now need to be considered with more urgency. Key among them is an interesting proposal by the News Media Alliance that continues to circulate on Capitol Hill. That legislation, known as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, would enable newspapers and other media outlets to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook to get compensation for content the platform companies use and sell advertising against.

Currently, without this type of bargaining power, local outlets have no real bargaining leverage or protection from social media platforms that use their content without paying for it. Little wonder that these outlets are not well positioned to capture a level of advertising dollars that would enable them to sustain robust operations over time. Declining revenues lead to layoffs and closures. So, while it would have been nice to provide some short-term payroll relief, probably the more meaningful legislative approach should provide mechanisms for earning more money rather just reducing personnel costs for a fixed period of time.

This proposed law, which unlike BBB has strong bipartisan support in Congress, need not be tied to the fate of BBB, which for now seems pretty dismal. It also would not involve the level of expenditures that were in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. 

As Senators and Representatives now travel home for their holiday break, letting their constituents know that they are resolved to pass this alternative approach when Congress reconvenes in January undoubtedly would be well received. It won’t be the only way to help revive local journalism, but both symbolically and substantively, making this commitment as a New Year’s resolution by the end of this month would be a welcome holiday gift to citizens of all political stripes.

Stuart N. Brotman is the Howard Distinguished Endowed Professor of Media Management and Law and Beaman Professor of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He served as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. and is the author of the forthcoming book, “The First Amendment Lives On.”

Tags Build Back Better Act Joe Biden Joe Manchin Journalism Journalism Competition and Preservation Act Local Journalism Sustainability Act Local news Newspaper
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