Congress is talking once again about making Google and Facebook pay for news

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a lead sponsor of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

A bill that could force Google and Facebook to fork over billions of dollars to local news outlets has lurched back to life. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, would allow publishers to negotiate as a bloc with the two giant tech platforms, something that would normally be prohibited because of antitrust concerns. The proposal would exclude the largest publishers and, as Rick Edmonds notes at Poynter Online, would lead to binding arbitration if the two sides can’t reach an agreement.

The legislation’s cosponsors in the Senate are Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La.; the House cosponsors are David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-Colo. That bipartisan support means the bill might actually be enacted. But is it a good idea?

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The premise on which the legislation is built is that Google and Facebook should pay fair compensation for repurposing the news content that they use. This strikes me as being much more straightforward with Google than with Facebook. Google’s mission is to index all the world’s knowledge, including journalism; Facebook is a social network, many of whose users post links to news stories. Facebook isn’t nearly as dependent on journalism as Google is and, in fact, has down-ranked it on several occasions over the years.

Google’s responsibility isn’t entirely clear, either. Yes, it links to news stories and publishes brief snippets. But it’s not a zero-sum situation — there’s no reason to believe that Google is depriving news publishers of traffic. It’s more likely that Google is pushing users to news sites and, with the rise of paywalls, may even be boosting subscriptions for local news outlets. Still, you could make a philosophical argument that Google ought to pay something because it benefits from having access to journalism, regardless of whether that deprives news outlets of any revenues.

A similar law in Australia has brought in $140 million, Edmonds reports. But critics have complained that the law’s main effect has been to further enrich Rupert Murdoch, still the leading press baron in his native country.

The JCPA should not be confused with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, which would provide three tax credits for local news outlets — one for subscribers, who would get to write off news subscriptions on their taxes; one for advertisers; and one for publishers for hiring and retaining journalists. As Steve Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, recently told us on the “What Works” podcast, this last provision is especially powerful because it would provide an incentive to do the right thing even at bottom-feeding chains owned by Alden Global Capital and Gannett.

Despite bipartisan support, the LJSA ran aground last year when President Biden split off the publishers’ credit and added it to the doomed Build Back Better bill. Perhaps it will be revived.

Is either measure needed in order to revive local news? What Ellen Clegg and I have found in the course of reporting for our book-in-progress, also called “What Works,” is that many independent local and regional news organizations across the country, nonprofit and for-profit alike, are doing reasonably well without government assistance. Since both the JCPA and the LJSA would be time-limited, maybe it’s worth giving them a try to see what the effects will ultimately be. But neither one of them will save local news — nor is it clear that local news needs saving once you remove the dead hand of corporate chain ownership.

Steve Waldman talks about Report for America and his quest to save local news

Steve Waldman

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Steve Waldman, the president and co-founder of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered communities. Steve came up with the concept in 2014 and joined forces with The Ground Truth Project to launch RFA in 2017.

In the projects we’re reporting on for this podcast and for our book, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” we’ve run across a number of RFA corps members. They usually have a couple of years of experience but are relatively new to the business, although there are a few near retirement age, too.

Steve has a deep background in magazine journalism. He was national editor of U.S. News & World Report and a national correspondent for Newsweek. He went on to co-found a multifaith religion website, Beliefnet.com, which won a National Magazine Award. He is also founder and coordinator of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, and he’s crafted some interesting proposals for how government can help revitalize local journalism while preserving editorial independence.

I’ve got a Quick Take on the happy conclusion to a bizarre situation involving a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Last fall, Josh Renaud reported that a flaw in a database maintained by the state of Missouri allowed for public access to thousands of Social Security numbers. Incredibly, the state’s governor, Mike Parson, denounced Renaud as a “hacker” and a criminal investigation was begun. It was absolutely outrageous, and now Renaud has been recognized with a national freedom-of-the-press award.

And Ellen takes it all back about Ogden Newspapers, which purchased The Aspen Times late last year but has supressed coverage and prompted a number of staff resignations.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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.”

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What Jeff Jacoby gets right — and wrong — about tax subsidies for local news

Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby devoted his Sunday column to laying out his case against the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which is aimed at easing the community news crisis through a series of federal tax credits. Jacoby’s opposition was no surprise, but I think it’s worth taking a look at his two major objections. One of them ought to be taken seriously; the other is grounded solely in his own boutique political philosophy.

The act would become law if it is included in the final reconciliation bill now being considered by Congress, assuming that Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will allow it be dragged at long last across the finish line. Here is a good overview of the bill by Steve Waldman, a founder of the Rebuild Local News Coalition. It would provide three tax credits for a five-year period, giving local news organizations some runway as they figure out how to transition to the confounding economic realities of the digital era:

  • 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.

Jacoby’s argument is that tax credits amount to government subsidies, and even though these would be indirect, they could still be wielded by government officials to reward their friends and punish their enemies. “Government subsidies, almost by definition, are antithetical to the spirit of an independent press and the First Amendment,” Jacoby writes. “A newspaper that takes money from the government is apt to pull its punches when it covers that government — especially if it grows addicted to tax breaks that will have to be renewed every few years.”

There’s no question that could be a problem. The optimistic view is that the tax subsidies will end after five years, so there’s not much incentive for news organizations to soft-pedal their coverage. But I can easily envision a lobbying effort to extend those tax breaks, and then you end up in exactly the situation that Jacoby warns against.

There’s also the possibility that news organizations, especially those owned by corporate chains and hedge funds, will not use the five years wisely by making the kinds of investments that might move them toward financial sustainability, like customer-focused digital products, seamless payment systems and newsrooms robust enough to be produce journalism that people will be willing to pay for. (All steps, by the way, that Jacoby’s employer has taken to good effect.) Instead, they’ll just pocket the savings and ask for more. These are real concerns.

Jacoby’s other concern can be dismissed easily enough by anyone who doesn’t share his purist libertarian views: he’s opposed to government subsidies for any sector of the economy and for any reason. As he writes, “I have never found that a persuasive claim and over the years have opposed targeting tax credits to many politically wired special pleaders, including biotech firms, video game makers, arts organizations, convention centers, higher education, movie and theater producers, Fortune 500 corporations, and public broadcasting.”

Here Jacoby has identified what many of us would regard as the flaw in his argument, because the tax credits envisioned in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act are not materially different from those granted to nonprofit news organizations in general. From PBS to nonprofit hyperlocal websites, nonprofit status enables donations to be tax-deductible and enables the news organizations themselves to avoid paying taxes.

Jacoby appears to be taking a more extreme position now than he has in the past. In his current column, he writes that he opposes tax credits for public broadcasting, which seems to go a step beyond his previous position: In 2011 he called for an end to direct government payments to public broadcasting, arguing that the system would do fine without such payments. There is nothing in that column to suggest he opposes the indirect government benefits that public media receive as a consequence of their nonprofit status.

As I’ve written before, I think it’s worth taking a chance on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Although there are some hazards, a few of which Jacoby has identified, overall it strikes me as a worthwhile response to the decline of community journalism.

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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.

Bipartisan federal legislation would provide tax credits to ease the local news crisis

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress that would provide some government support for local news. The ubiquitous Steve Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America and the chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, writes that the 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.”

Waldman has the details, so I’ll just hit the highlights:

  • It would provide a tax credit of up to $250 each year for subscriptions or donations to local news — a measure Waldman has been talking about for quite a while.
  • Payroll tax credits would be available to publishers for hiring or retaining journalists.
  • Small businesses would receive a tax credit for advertising in local news outlets.

The bill, known as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, is co-sponsored by Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.

My reservation about this legislation is that would benefit chain-owned papers as much as it would independent papers and websites. I guess that’s OK, and it’s hard to imagine how to cut out the corporations while keeping benefits for independents. But I’m concerned that the legislation might freeze in place the advantage already held by corporate-owned legacy outlets without providing them much in the way of an incentive to improve their journalism.

On the other hand, I agree with Waldman that the legislation is ingenious in the way that it would provide government support for local news without making news organizations dependent on currying favor with the very people they’re covering. Another smart move: benefits would be limited to organizations with fewer than 750 employees, which would leave out the large national newspapers.

Overall, it’s a pretty interesting step that might help ease the local news crisis. I don’t see this as a comprehensive solution, but even a boost on the margins would help.

Local news as infrastructure

Report for America co-founder Steve Waldman is suggesting that a plan he’s been touting to help the beleaguered local news business be included in whatever infrastructure bill comes out of Congress.

Writing recently for Poynter Online, Waldman said that each American should be given a $250 tax credit either to buy a subscription to a local news source or to make a donation to a nonprofit news organization. He notes that Sen. Maria Cantwell, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, has come out in favor of $2.4 billion to bolster local news. Waldman writes:

Local news is, in fact, the civic infrastructure of democracy.

But let’s get less metaphorical. If the health of democracy wasn’t reason enough, there’s another, practical reason why help for local news should be part of the infrastructure bill. If the government is going to spend a trillion or so dollars on public works projects, we need local watchdog reporters to make sure the money is spent well.

Waldman has been promoting the $250 tax credit for some time, and he says it has some bipartisan support. But the idea of rolling it into the infrastructure bill seems worth exploring as a way of actually making it a reality.

Waldman discussed his Poynter piece with Brian Stelter last weekend on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” He’s also involved in an organization called the Rebuild Local News Coalition, comprising more than 4,000 local newsrooms (up from about 3,000 at the time of the Poynter piece) and journalism advocacy organizations.