Government ideas to help ease the local news crisis may be fizzling out

Photo (cc) 2007 by weirdisnothing

Less than a year ago, it looked like the federal government might be ready to pass legislation aimed at addressing the local news crisis. The ideas in play were far from perfect, but they might have provided some needed assistance, at least for the short term. Now those proposals appear to be all but dead.

Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the news business for Poynter, wrote recently that the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, seems likely to fall victim to Washington’s dysfunctional political environment.

The LJSA would create three tax credits for a period of five years. One would allow news consumers to write off the cost of subscriptions on their taxes. Another would be aimed at businesses that advertise in local news outlets, and a third would subsidize publishers who hire or retain journalists.

Late last year, though, the credit for publishers was broken off and added to the Build Back Better bill, which died because of intransigence on the part of all 50 Republicans plus Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. As Edmonds observes, the LJSA could be revived and considered as a discrete piece of legislation. But, he writes, “separate breakout legislation would need to go through committees and get 60 votes. A subsidy for journalism is probably not so popular as to command those 10 added votes.”

Meanwhile, another Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar, is pushing a bill that would allow the news business to bargain with Facebook and Google to share some of their ad revenues. That bill, dubbed the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, is modeled after a law adopted in Australia. But the JCPA may also be dead on arrival, Edmonds reports, as Republican Sen. Mike Lee has trashed it by saying that “the last thing we should do is to accept a cartel — or create one — colluding against a business partner.”

Yet a third bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier may prove less controversial. The DeSaulnier legislation would make it easier for a for-profit news organization to convert to nonprofit status, something that is currently not covered by the IRS code. But given that the IRS has shown quite a bit of willingness to approve such conversions in recent years, the effect of that particular proposal may be minimal. (Disclosure: I had a hand in drafting the DeSaulnier legislation.)

As I said, these proposals are problematic. The LJSA would reward corporate chain owners along with independent operators, thus subsidizing a model that has failed to provide communities with news and information they need. In Australia, the revenue-sharing scheme with Google and Facebook has mainly served to further enrich Rupert Murdoch.

There is no substitute for innovation and passion at the local level. Still, given the dire straits in which local news finds itself, a helping hand from the government would be welcome. Sadly, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Manchin kills Build Back Better, doing what he could have done six months ago

Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Third Way Think Tank.

Sen. Joe Manchin has finally done what he was obviously planning to do all along — he’s killed the Build Back Better bill. Naturally, he made his announcement during an appearance on Fox News.

This is why I was upset with progressives like Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for holding the infrastructure bill hostage until Build Back Better was passed. To what end? Manchin was never going to vote for BBB, no matter how many programs were cut out of it. At least we got the infrastructure bill anyway. But I hate to be right — BBB would have done an immense amount of good.

The protracted process did enormous damage to President Joe Biden’s political standing. He and his advisers need to think about how they got themselves in a position where they rolled all the dice in a very public way on something that was never going to pass.

It’s time also to think about how individual chunks of BBB might be salvaged. It won’t be easy. But the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, part of which had been folded into BBB, stands out as something that has actual bipartisan support. Let’s get it done.

Please support this free source of news and commentary by becoming a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.

Why ‘both sides’ journalism fails in the face of the rising threat to our democracy

Previously published at GBH News.

One president lied about COVID-19 (the country’s and his own), embraced white supremacists and tried to overturn the results of an election that he lost. Another president has hit a few bumps in the road as he attempts to persuade Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess which one received more negative news coverage?

If you guessed President Joe Biden, then come on down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harsher from August through November of this year than then-President Donald Trump’s was during the same four-month period in 2020.

On one level, it’s inconceivable. On another, though, it’s all too predictable. Large swaths of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond both-sides journalism, equating the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.

“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who ordered up the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”

As I’ve written before, and as many others have said, we’re in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered because of the Constitution’s small-state bias and the Senate filibuster (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter-suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now regards the United States as a “backsliding democracy.” To quote from IDEA’s report directly, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

And the media remain wedded to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as though they were horse races and treating the two major parties as equally legitimate players with different views.

It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies easy summary (the whole episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press falls back on its old habits because breaking out of them is just too difficult.

“The horse race absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take that abuse, because it is such a problem-solver. It checks so many other boxes that even when people know it’s kind of bankrupt, it stays on.” As an alternative, Rosen proposes coverage based on a “citizens agenda,” which he has written about at his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we may lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.

What I find especially frustrating is that the media have not been ignoring the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just one small example, the Times on Sunday published a front-page story by Nick Corasaniti on a multitude of actions being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the election machinery.

“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially by people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in what had been relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise the prospect of elections being thrown into chaos or even overturned.”

So why am I frustrated? Because this sort of valuable enterprise reporting is walled off from day-to-day political coverage. We are routinely served up stories about the congressional Republican leaders, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, going about their business as though they were latter-day versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of seeking compromise and governing. In fact, whether through cowardice or conviction, they are enabling our slide into authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection as well as by failing to call out Trump and the excesses of their worst members.

Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “democracy beat,” which would look closely at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media,” permeating every aspect of political and governmental coverage.

If Trump runs again, he may very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to go along with Trump’s demands that they overturn the results. That is not likely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”

Meanwhile, the media go about covering President Biden and his travails as though our politics hadn’t changed over the past 40 years. Of course Biden needs to be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, confusing White House messaging about COVID and his inability to bring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to heel are all worthy of tough coverage. (But not inflation because, please, don’t be stupid.) But it needs to be done in a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.

As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter, “The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).”

Five years ago Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report showing that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general-election campaign had been equally negative — a finding that he found disturbing. Patterson wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Well, here we go again. Next time, though, it’s the future of democracy that is likely to be at stake.

With Alden on the prowl again, it’s time to stop hedge funds from destroying newspapers

Photo (cc) 2007 by Mike

Previously published at GBH News. It’s rather late in the game to ask whether hedge funds can be stopped from buying up every last one of our local newspapers. After all, about half of us are already stuck with a paper that is owned by, or is in debt to, the likes of Alden Global Capital (Tribune Publishing and MediaNews Group), Apollo Global Management (Gannett) and Chatham Asset Management (McClatchy).

Still, with Alden having now set its sights on Lee Enterprises, a chain that owns 77 daily newspapers in 26 states, we need to take steps aimed at preventing what is already a debacle from devolving into a catastrophe.

So what can be done? Steven Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America, which places young journalists in newsrooms, has some ideas. At the top of his list: redefining antitrust law.

“In general, antitrust law for the past three or four decades has focused on whether mergers would hurt consumers by raising prices or reducing competition,” Waldman wrote recently for the Washington Monthly. “But before that, antitrust regulators looked at mergers more broadly, including whether they would hurt communities. And that’s what needs to happen here.”

Waldman would also provide tax incentives for nonprofit organizations seeking to buy newspapers as well as tax credits to make it easier for news organizations to hire or retain journalists. That latter provision is part of the Build Back Better legislation, whose uncertain fate rests in the hands of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

“This will strengthen local news organizations of all shapes and sizes, making them less vulnerable to vultures,” Waldman argued. “The legislation could be a powerful antidote to the sickness spreading within local communities.” Trouble is, the tax credits would benefit the Aldens and the Gannetts just as much as they would the independently owned news organizations that are struggling for survival. Still, it seems like a step worth trying.

The problem with hedge funds owning newspapers is that such funds exist solely for the purpose of enriching their investors. Newspapers, of course, aren’t exactly lucrative. But they still have advertising and circulation revenues, even if they are much smaller than they were, say, 20 or 30 years ago. Cut expenses to the bone by laying off reporters and selling real estate, and you can squeeze out profits for the enrichment of the owners.

Alden is notorious for being the most avaricious of the bunch. Which is why shock waves ripped throughout the journalistic community last week when Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute reported that Alden — just months after feasting on Tribune’s nine major-market dailies — was making a bid for Lee, whose papers include the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Buffalo News and the Arizona Daily Star. (Julie Reynolds, an investigative reporter who has been dogging Alden for years, recently spoke about the hedge fund with Ellen Clegg and me as part of our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” at Northeastern University.)

Lee’s papers also include the Omaha World-Herald, and therein lies a sad story. The World-Herald was at one time the flagship of hometown boy Warren Buffett’s newspaper chain, which he began assembling in 2012. But despite Buffett’s self-proclaimed love for newspapers, he failed to invest in their future, cutting them repeatedly and eventually selling out to Lee. Now they face the possibility of a much worse fate.

Or not. Several days after Alden offered to buy Lee in a deal valued at $141 million, the Lee board of directors adopted a poison pill provison. As reported by Benjamin Mullin in The Wall Street Journal, Alden — which currently holds about 6% of Lee stock — would be forbidden for the next year from increasing its share above 10%. If nothing else, the move provides some time for other buyers to emerge. Perhaps the chain will be broken up, with some of Lee’s papers being acquired by local owners.

As Waldman suggests, there is nothing inevitable about local news being destroyed at the hands of venture capital. About two and a half years ago, I wrote about The Salt Lake Tribune, acquired from Alden by local interests and converted into a nonprofit news organization. Now, according to Lauren Gustus, the Tribune’s executive editor, the paper is adding staff and resources. “We celebrate 150 years this year and we are healthy,” she wrote in a message to readers recently. “We are sustainable in 2021, and we have no plans to return to a previously precarious position.”

Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing (not The Salt Lake Tribune; I realize there are a lot of Tribunes to keep track of here) was an avoidable tragedy, made possible by a board that placed greed above the public interest. Since closing the deal, the hedge fund has been hacking away at Tribune newspapers that were already much diminished, including the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant.

Yet some good may come out of it, too: Stewart Bainum, a hotel magnate who had competed with Alden for Tribune, is starting a well-funded nonprofit news site, The Baltimore Banner, that will compete with Tribune’s Baltimore Sun. Maybe that will lead to similar efforts in other Tribune cities.

Meanwhile, Lee Enterprises’ newspapers are safe, at least for now. What will happen a year from now is anybody’s guess. But as long as the vulture can be kept outside the cave, there is hope for the millions of readers who depend on a Lee newspaper to stay informed about what’s happening in their community.

Democratic leaders roll the dice with assistance for local news organizations

Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Third Way Think Tank.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA), which I’ve written about rather obsessively here, is built upon the foundation of a three-legged stool: a tax write-off for individuals of up to $250 for subscription fees or donations to local news organizations; a tax credit for advertisers in local news outlets; and a payroll tax credit for publishers that hire or retain journalists.

Now the payroll credit has been carved out and added to the Build Back Better bill, which has passed the House and now faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that the provision would add up to nearly $1.7 billion over the next five years for newspapers, digital operations and broadcast operations.

Tracy notes — rather huffily, if I’m reading him accurately — that large newspapers like the Times would be excluded because they employ more than 1,500 in one location, but giant newspaper chains such as Gannett and those owned by Alden Global Capital would stand to benefit. As I’ve said before, I wish there were a way of restricting the benefits to independent owners; still, this strikes me as worth trying.

What I’m more concerned about is the political wisdom of adding just one part of the LJSA to Build Back Better, which — despite the optimism voiced by President Biden and other Democratic leaders — could be doomed given the seemingly endless demands made by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

There is at least some bipartisan support for the LJSA. Moreover, the tax write-off for subscriptions and donations strikes me as more interesting and creative than simply handing money to publishers for not laying people off. If Build Back Better passes, it will be with just 50 Democratic votes and Vice President Harris breaking the tie — and at that point it seems likely that the other two legs of the stool would disappear. If Build Back Better goes down to defeat, proponents of the LJSA will have to start from scratch.

Even so, the benefits that would be provided by the payroll tax credit are not insignificant. Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, tells The New York Times that the credit would mean $200,000 in just the first year for his struggling newspaper. “We’d be walking in tall cotton,” he’s quoted as saying. (Ellen Clegg and I spoke with Cullen recently on our podcast, What Works: The Future of Local News.)

Providing government assistance to journalism is fraught with concerns about the First Amendment and the need for an independent press. Yet journalism has always benefited from government help, starting with postal subsidies in the late 1700s. The LJSA is worth trying. I just hope that Democratic leaders haven’t outsmarted themselves by splitting up a bill that stood a decent chance of passing and grafting it onto a large package that they just can’t seem to get done.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month!

A federal bill to help local news organizations may fall victim to D.C. dysfunction

The U.S. Capitol. Photo (cc) 2013 by Mark Fischer.

Update: And it’s back.

Original item: You can never take anything for granted. Until recently, though, it seemed like a reasonably good bet that Congress would pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits for subscribers, publishers and advertisers for five years. The idea was to bolster the bottom line of community newspapers, radio stations and television outlets while giving them some time to figure out a path to financial sustainability.

Last week, though, the House dropped the $1 billion measure from its version of the reconciliation bill. So now it’s up to the Senate to restore it to the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation, meaning that the fate of local journalism rests in the unsteady hands of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter, who has all the details, wrote that the bill now “faces a giant hurdle” — and that was on Tuesday, before the election returns from Virginia panicked the already-jumpy Democrats. You’d like to think that the Republican resurgence would focus the Democrats’ minds on the need to get something done, but it will probably have the opposite effect. And with Manchin and Sinema, who knows?

I’m what you might call a skeptical supporter of the legislation. Although the assistance would be indirect enough not to threaten journalistic integrity, I’m troubled by the prospect of corporate chain owners lining up at the trough. Ideally, federal help should foster independent local news organizations while letting the very owners who helped create this mess figure things out for themselves.

Still, it’s worth giving it a try on a temporary basis. As Steven Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, puts it, “The cost is miniscule compared to the rest of the Build Back Better package — less than 0.1% of its total. But this provision is the only thing in the bill that would help save democracy.”

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month. Members receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content, a round-up of the week’s posts, photography and a song of the week.

How minority rule is turning the U.S. into an undemocratic country

Photo (cc) 2014 by the National Museum of American History

This essay was first published in the Media Nation member newsletter. To become a member for $5 a month, please click here.

Like many of us, I worry about the state of our democracy. I write about it from time to time, but what concerns me especially is that it’s almost impossible to see any way out of our dilemma. That’s because we need systemic reform in order to move toward democracy. Not only is it in the interest of Republicans to oppose that reform, but there’s also no way of overcoming their opposition.

Obviously a lot of attention has been focused on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to getting rid of the filibuster, which means that President Joe Biden won’t be able to pass any of his non-budget priorities through a simple majority. But we all know the problem goes deeper than that, because the Constitution is heavily tilted toward the small-population states, which are overwhelmingly Republican.

At the presidential level, we need to get rid of the Electoral College, a vestige of slavery that resulted in the elections of George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 even though they lost the popular vote. Yes, the Electoral College has always been with us. But before Bush, the last time a candidate was elected president despite losing the popular vote was in 1888. Because of shifting demographics, such outcomes have become increasingly likely.

Nor is the problem solely at the presidential level. The 50 Republican senators represent just 43.5% of the electorate, according to calculations by the Daily Kos, whereas the 50 Democratic senators represent 56.5%. That’s an enormous gap, yet between the filibuster’s requirement of 60 votes to move forward on anything and the small-state advantage, Chuck Schumer might as well hand his gavel over to Mitch McConnell.

The House is at least theoretically democratic since districts are drawn on the basis of population. But partisan gerrymandering has resulted in Republicans having more seats to which they should be entitled. That will certainly prove to be a factor in the midterm elections, when the Republicans will in all likelihood regain their majority.

And I haven’t even mentioned Republican efforts across the country to pass voter-suppression laws that would disproportionately affect people of color.

This state of affairs would be bad enough if Republicans were committed to our democratic system. But we can see that they’re not, and their willingness to repeat the Big Lie that Trump won re-election last fall has become a loyalty test within the party.

We can all think of ways to solve these problems, but even to write about them seems like an exercise in futility. The Republicans would block any changes that would diminish their power. And we will continue to move deeper into minority rule.

Axios perpetuates #bothsides journalism in the midst of insanity

Marjorie Taylor Greene. Photo (cc) 2020 by FYNTV FetchYourNews.

Many mainstream news organizations are genuinely struggling to come to terms with the current dynamic in Washington: an often feckless Democratic Party opposed by crazy and dangerous Republicans. It’s not an entirely new scenario, and has in fact been building since Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the mid-1990s. But it’s become acute since the Trump-inspired insurrection of Jan. 6 and the embrace of QAnon and sedition by large swaths of the GOP.

But while responsible journalists are trying to figure out how to navigate this reality, there’s another group that continues to embrace #bothsides-ism at its most mindless. At the center of this is Axios, which combines the politics-as-sports sensibility of Politico, whence it sprang, with bullet points and lots of boldface.

Take, for instance, “The Mischief Makers.” According to Axios reporters Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba, leaders in each of the two major parties are being tormented by “troublemakers” and “political thorns” within their ranks. And who are these feisty backbenchers?

Well, on the Republican side is House member Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has called for the execution of  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and who believes that wildfires are caused by a Jewish-controlled laser in outer space. Also getting a nod are Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert and Mo Brooks, all of whom supported the insurrection.

What Democrats could possibly be as dastardly as that? Why, the Squad, of course! Because they’re liberal and/or progressive. So Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley all get a shoutout, as well as like-minded newcomers such as Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush.

In the Senate, Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, all of whom supported Trump’s coup attempt, are equated with Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who are more conservative than most of their party peers, and independent Bernie Sanders, who’s to the left of most of his colleagues but who’s been notably supportive of President Joe Biden.

But wait! There’s to-be-sure paragraph buried amid all this:

Not all are created equal. Democrats often contend with an outspoken, very progressive wing of their caucus and try to keep centrists from crossing party lines. Republicans have senators who led efforts to invalidate the 2020 election results and flirted with the same conspiracy theories that fueled groups involved in the Capitol siege.

No kidding.

So, does anything Axios publishes cause genuine harm? It’s hard to say. But Axios is aimed primarily at insiders — congressional staff members, lobbyists and other journalists. And many of them would love nothing more than validation that they can return to business as usual.

Cynical takes such as this can serve to normalize what’s going on in Washington, providing the narcotic drip we need to help us forget that many powerful Republicans attempted to overthrow the results of the election less than a month ago. Five people died, and we haven’t even begun to get to the bottom of what happened.