Why we need federal assistance to help save local news

Photo (cc) 2011 by Oregon Department of Transportation

Previously published at GBH News.

Can government help solve the local news crisis? The notion sounds absurd, even dangerous. You get what you pay for, and if government officials are funneling money to media outlets, then it’s not unreasonable to expect that they’ll demand sticky-sweet favorable coverage in return.

Yet the situation is so dire that once-unthinkable ideas need to be on the table. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving about 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. About 30,000 newsroom jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2020. The consequences range from the potential for increased corruption to a decline in voter turnout for local elections.

Now federal legislation long in the making may finally be ready to move ahead. Believe it or not, the bill is bipartisan. It also manages to avoid the entangling alliances that would endanger journalistic independence. That’s because the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, introduced in the Senate last week and in the House a month earlier, relies on tax credits rather than direct government assistance.

“This clever, bipartisan bill would provide more help for local news than any time in about a century, yet it’s done in a very First-Amendment-friendly way,” writes Steven Waldman, the co-founder of the Rebuild Local News Coalition as well as the co-founder and president of Report for America. (Disclosure: Report for America, which places young reporters at news organizations around the country, is part of the GroundTruth Project, affiliated with GBH in Boston.)

So how would the bill work? Essentially, it would provide three tax credits that would expire after five years, giving media outlets some runway to move toward long-term sustainability. I am oversimplying, but here is the rough outline:

• News consumers would be able to write off $250 a year that they spend on subscriptions or on donations to nonprofit news organizations.

• News organizations would receive tax benefits for hiring or retaining journalists.

• Local small businesses would receive tax credits for advertising in local newspapers and news websites and on television and radio stations.

The benefits would be restricted to small news organizations, defined as those with 750 employees or fewer in the House bill or fewer than 1,000 in the Senate bill.

At a time when Congress seems incapable of doing anything, some version of the bill appears to stand a good chance of passing. After all, elected officials, regardless of party or ideology, like to be covered by the hometown press, and the bill would help ensure that there will continue to be a press. As of Tuesday, there were 32 co-sponsors in the House — 25 Democrats and 7 Republicans. Because the Senate version was just introduced, the only co-sponsors so far are the three Democrats who introduced it — Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Kelly of Arizona.

Among the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation, Sen. Ed Markey will support the bill and has asked to be a co-sponsor, says Markey spokeswoman Giselle Barry. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is studying the legislation and has not yet stated a position, according to Warren spokeswoman Nora Keefe. On the House side, Reps. Jim McGovern and Seth Moulton are co-sponsors, and Mary Rose Tarpey, a spokeswoman for Rep. Stephen Lynch, says that Lynch will also be a co-sponsor, as he was during the previous session.

Government assistance for news is not new. During the early days of the republic, postal subsidies were the foundation upon which the distribution system for newspapers and magazines was built. Today, nonprofit news organizations ranging from hyperlocal websites to public broadcasters benefit from tax incentives that allow their donors to write off the money they give and that exempts the media outlets themselves from having to pay taxes.

Given the catastrophic state in which journalism finds itself, some activists and scholars are calling for more direct funding of news. For instance, Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School, advocates much higher government spending on public media. Longtime media reformer Robert McChesney has talked about giving as much as $35 billion over five years to elected citizens councils that would fund local news and underwrite startups.

But there are dangers in such approaches. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Republican-dominated legislature cut off $750,000 to the state’s seven public radio and television stations after one of them, WITF Radio of Harrisburg, began calling out any elected official who continued to challenge the validity of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, while conceding there was no evidence of a direct cause-and-effect over what was admittedly a small amount of funding, wrote in his weekly newsletter that the action “shows the enormous peril of government dollars for journalism, even as a partial solution. In an era when a growing number of elected officials are waging war on the truth, from election results to coronavirus vaccines, would journalists be forced to choose between an important story or their survival?”

By contrast, the federal bill under consideration avoids those problems by putting as much distance as possible between elected officials and the aid that news organizations would receive.

My one reservation about the bill is that chain-owned newspapers would benefit along with independent projects. That said, the Rebuild Local News Coalition, whose members represent more than 3,000 newsrooms, includes some of the most public-spirited organizations that are working on these problems, such as LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, the Lenfest Institute and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Perhaps the problem of chain ownership could be addressed, as Waldman proposes, by giving tax breaks to the likes of Gannett and Alden Global Capital if they sell their papers to local nonprofits and public benefit corporations. I would also suggest tax penalties if they decline to do so. Corporate ownership is killing local news just as surely as technological change and the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, and we need to get the publicly traded corporations and hedge funds out.

At a time when political and cultural polarization at the national level is tearing us apart, local news can help encourage the kind of civic engagement we need to rebuild community. But that can’t happen if the newspaper has gone out of business or is on life support, and if nothing else has come along to take its place.

Fundamentally, what’s at issue is that the advertising model that paid for journalism until recent years has collapsed. Publishers need to find a way forward, whether through reader revenue, nonprofit funding, paid events or even starting a bar and wedding venue next to the newsroom, as The Big Bend Sentinel in West Texas did.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act will help sustain local news while we search for a workable model that doesn’t rely on advertising. After 15 years of declining revenues and dying newspapers, it may be our last chance to get it right.

The Big Bend Sentinel’s formula: Burgers, brews and, now, a national ad network

Lost Horse Saloon, Marfa, Texas. Photo (cc) 2014 by Thomas Hawk.

It seems like a story from a world we left behind. In late February 2020, I wrote a column about The Big Bend Sentinel, a tiny newspaper in West Texas that was supporting its journalism — and boosting the community’s connection with the paper — by operating a café next to the newsroom.

“Can drinks, community events and the occasional wedding subsidize small-town journalism?,” asked The New York Times.

Well, we all know what happened next. So I was pleasantly surprised last month when Max Kabat, the co-owner of the Sentinel, popped up on the podcast “E&P Reports” and announced that the Sentinel is alive and well.

To my frustration the host, Editor & Publisher owner Mike Blinder, didn’t really press Kabat on how the Sentinel’s café made it through the pandemic. But obviously it did. The Sentinel is based in Marfa, Texas, about halfway between Albuquerque to the west and San Antonio to the east. Kabat and his wife, Maisie Crow, are not your typical rural newspaper publishers — they’re refugees from Brooklyn, where Kabat worked in advertising and Crow was a photojournalist and documentarian. They still pursue those careers, even as Kabat serves as publisher of the Sentinel and a smaller sister paper, the Presidio International, and Crow acts as editor-in-chief.

As for whether the café is helping to support the Sentinel’s journalism, Kabat said the answer is yes:

We’re now actually making money. It was starting to make money. We have never not paid any of our expenses, our loans, the things that we’ve done to try to make this thing work. We’ve always been able to do that, which is great. And for the first time, we actually have money in the bank where we’re continuing to invest. We’ve never taken money out. We just continue to invest into the business because we believe in the idea. And that’s what we’re doing. The Sentinel [that is, the café] makes more money than the newspaper.

At the moment, Kabat says he’s pursuing another revenue-making idea that could support not just his newspapers but other community-based journalism projects as well — a national advertising network based on values rather than clicks. National ads have become nearly worthless for local news websites because Google has driven their value through the floor. Kabat’s idea, called Broadsheet, would enable like-minded publishers to connect with advertisers that would rather be seen on quality local websites. Kabat described his message to advertisers like this:

Put your money where your mouth is. If you make an ad that’s about building community and then you go buy every national television, blah, blah, blah, and you spray it programmatically, you know what that does? That takes 20% of the money that you spent on making that ad. And you take 80% of the money that you spent on this advertising campaign and you give it back to the things that are making us worse.

Among Broadsheet’s early possible clients are papers in Aspen, Telluride, Jackson Hole, the Hamptons and — closer to home — the Vineyard Gazette. That’s a lot of tourist dollars. Marfa itself is a tourist destination as well as the setting for the iconic James Dean movie “Giant.” But perhaps over time Kabat will be able to build his model out and use it to serve news projects in less affluent, more diverse areas as well.

I’m firmly of the belief that, for local news projects to succeed, they need not only to serve their community but to help re-establish the very idea of community. The Big Bend Sentinel is doing that in the most direct way imaginable.

Burgers, beers and journalism: An experiment in civic engagement

Photo (cc) 2012 by Ruocaled

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Can a news organization help to support itself by opening a café, bar and wedding venue? It’s a good question, but here’s a better one: Can such a gathering place lead to the revival of civic engagement and, thus, to renewed interest in local journalism?

The New York Times last week reported on an interesting experiment taking place at The Big Bend Sentinel of Marfa, Texas. The paper was acquired last year by two former New Yorkers, Maisie Crow and Max Kabat, who quickly found themselves facing the challenge of paying the bills in an era of shrinking ad revenues. Their solution was to renovate a former bar and transform it into a newsroom and café. The revenues, Crow said, would be used to expand the Sentinel’s coverage, explaining that “we wanted to expand the potential.”

But at a time when the decline of civic life is leading to diminishing interest in the day-to-day goings-on that are the staple of local newspapers, bringing journalists and the community together in a common space could help remind residents of why news matters. Indeed, Abbie Perrault, the Sentinel’s managing editor, told the Times that the shared space is “a great way to keep my finger on the pulse and get new leads and find stories.”

The Sentinel is offering a fresh take on an idea that nearly got off the ground a decade ago. That’s when Matt DeRienzo, then the 34-year-old publisher of The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut, was opening up his newsroom to the public with the encouragement of John Paton, an innovative executive who was briefly the toast of the newspaper business.

As The New York Times wrote back then, members of the public could visit The Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café for coffee and muffins and to use the paper’s archives for free. “Matt’s taking his audience and making it a colleague,” Paton was quoted as saying. “A building with open doors, with no walls, is the brick-and-mortar metaphor for how the web works.”

DeRienzo was soon named editor of all of the Journal Register Co. chain’s Connecticut newspapers, including its flagship, the New Haven Register. I interviewed him around that time, and he was brimming with ideas. The company sold off its hulking plant by I-95, and DeRienzo began making plans for an open newsroom on the Yale side of the New Haven Green.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Journal Register was merged with another chain, MediaNews Group, and the resulting behemoth was dubbed Digital First Media — an ironic moniker that paid tribute to Paton’s oft-repeated mantra, “digital first,” but that soon proved it was dedicated mainly to squeezing out profits for the benefit of its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Paton left. DeRienzo left. And the idea of local journalism reinvented around open newsrooms and public participation faded away. (I told the full story of Digital First’s rise and fall in an earlier WGBH News commentary.)

“It elevated the awareness and reputation of the newspaper and the people who worked in the newsroom,” DeRienzo said of the Torrington experiment in a Facebook discussion last week. “It improved transparency and trust with readers. Our audience grew, and our digital revenue grew.”

Nearly a generation ago, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark book “Bowling Alone” that newspaper readership correlates strongly with civic engagement. People who vote in local elections, take part in volunteer activities, attend religious services or engage in any number of other activities are also more likely to read the paper. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Which brings us back to The Big Bend Sentinel. The local news crisis has multiple causes, technological change and corporate greed being foremost among them. But, fundamentally, it’s also about declining interest in what the school board is up to, whether the city council will approve a new liquor license and other quotidian matters.

News organizations that hope to survive and thrive can’t settle for merely covering civic life — they have to teach their communities the importance of local news so that people will start paying attention and realize that what the mayor is doing is likely to have more of an effect on their families than anything that is taking place in Washington.

Such journalism is sometimes derisively called “eating your broccoli.” So kudos to the Sentinel for reimagining the intersection of journalism and audience engagement more along the lines of a cheeseburger and a beer. And look! Here comes the bride!

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the town name of Marfa, Texas.

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