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.

Is government-funded local journalism an idea whose time has come?

U.S. Treasury. Photo (cc) 2007 by Adam Fagen.

The local news crisis has some people talking seriously about government funding for journalism. The idea isn’t entirely new. Nonprofit news organizations enjoy tax benefits, and public broadcasters receive some federal money. As I recently reported for GBH News, federal pandemic relief actually meant that 2020 was a better year than 2019 for some media outlets.

But what comes next? Local media are being squeezed on one side by technology and on the other by avaricious chain ownership. Ideally, you would want to find ways to help independent news organizations without rewarding the corporations and hedge funds that are cutting newsrooms without conscience. But it’s hard to imagine how you would draw distinctions between the two.

Moreover, direct government assistance raises serious questions about how journalism can play its traditional watchdog role if it’s receiving money from the watchdog. It strikes me that it would be a hard sell with taxpayers, too. Nevertheless, some smart people are thinking about how we can provide communities with the news and information they need in an era of market failure.

One idea was offered recently by Osita Nwanevu in The New Republic. Under the headline “The Next Infrastructure Bill Should Save Local Journalism,” Nwanevu writes:

Really, the administration’s push for a more capacious definition of infrastructure should encourage us to think even more creatively about what else should qualify for the next package as it takes shape. Can it seriously be argued, for instance, that access to the news isn’t an important feature of any well-functioning society? We all depend upon a steady stream of accurate information; obviously, we owe much of our awareness that America’s infrastructure is crumbling to the work of journalists who helped alert policymakers and the public to the problem in the first place.

Nwanevu notes that the $3 per capita we currently spend on public broadcasting is a pittance compared to the $90 that is the average in many other developed countries. He also writes favorably of ideas that Andrew Yang put forth during his presidential campaign for a fellowship program for journalists and a “Local Journalism Fund” to help news outlets transition to sustainability. But Nwanevu is also thinking bigger than that, calling for $30 billion to $40 billion over the next 10 years.

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I’m not sold, though, mainly because Nwanevu only half-defines the problem. He cites the challenges posed by technology and the rise of Google and Facebook, but he makes no mention of corporate ownership, which has made the crisis much worse than it needed to be. With chains like Gannett and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital bleeding their newspapers dry, there is no money left over to invest in the future. Meanwhile, a number of independent news organizations across the country, for-profit and nonprofit, are doing a good job of serving their communities. We need more.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a conversation with the longtime media reformer Robert McChesney; Steve Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America; and the economist Andrea Prat. All of them offer their own ideas for providing some public assistance for news, with McChesney’s proposal for a “Green New Deal for journalism” being the most ambitious. He describes the challenge this way:

This is the public policy imperative facing the United States regarding journalism in 2021: we need the funding to support independent, competitive, professional local news media. That money must come from the government, but we cannot allow the government to pick and choose who gets the money. The policy must be like the postal subsidy of newspapers: large enough to get the job done, and it cannot discriminate on the basis of ideology or political viewpoint. Censorship is entirely unacceptable. It must allow the people to make of it what they will, and trust them in the process of self-government.

So how would McChesney accomplish that? Through elections at the county level (that wouldn’t really work in Massachusetts, which is pretty much county-free) to elect boards that would distribute between $32 billion and $35 billion a year over a five-year period to fund local news and foster the development of new nonprofit organizations. It’s pretty breath-taking, and McChesney admits there’s no support for such a plan in Washington at the moment. But the value McChesney has always brought to the table is that he thinks big and gives us a chance to wrap our minds around larger possibilities.

Waldman’s plan, by contrast, already has a great deal of support on Capitol Hill: a $250 refundable tax credit to pay for local news subscriptions or to donate to nonprofit media outlets. He would like to see a tax credit for hiring and retaining journalists as well, which is something currently being done in Canada.

Prat, though, argues that the tax credits would mainly benefit large news organizations, whereas “the most urgent problem is not the overall information level but its distribution across the population.” A voucher system, he says, “would give more access to information-poor people.”

So, has the moment come for government-funded news? My own guess is probably not, at least if we’re talking about the ambitious proposals put forth by Nwanevu and McChesney. But some modest assistance aimed at helping news organizations make the transition to a sustainable future might well be a good idea.

Waldman’s tax credits and Prat’s vouchers could be seen as extensions of the help we already provide through nonprofit tax incentives. And surely we can provide more funding for public media while broadening the definition to include community-based journalism.

Everything needs to be on the table.

Death, life and the future of news

Robert McChesney (left) and John Nichols

What role should the government have in preserving public-interest journalism? If you’re a First Amendment absolutist (and I consider myself to be pretty close), you might immediately respond with a resounding “none.” Yet such purity has never been the reality in American life.

Heavy postal subsidies from the earliest days of the republic helped create the most vibrant newspaper and magazine industry in the world. To bring matters up to the present, media corporations are now given virtually free use of the broadcast airwaves, theoretically owned by all of us, with little expectation that they will fulfill the public-interest obligations that were once required of them.

Earlier today, John Nichols and Robert McChesney visited Northeastern to promote their new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again.” (You can read excerpts of it here and here.) I won’t pretend to write an objective account — I introduced them, and we all said nice things about each other. Rather, I want to discuss briefly their idea that at a time when journalism is in crisis, government ought to step in and prop it up to the tune of some $30 billion a year — a number they say correlates, in 2010 dollars, with what was spent on postal subsidies in the 1840s.

To their credit, they do not propose taking taxpayer funds and handing them to Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger. Instead, they would like to see a variety of initiatives that, properly implemented, would bolster journalism without raising the specter of government interference: greatly expanded support for public broadcasting with an arm’s-length funding mechanism; an AmeriCorps for young journalists; even a $200 tax credit for every family to spend on the news media of their choice.

And they are correct in asserting that other Western democracies, particularly the Scandinavian countries, subsidize their media to a far greater extent than we do without suffering any loss of freedom.

Yet I still worry that theirs is the wrong solution. Consider, for example, that non-profit organizations, including news operations, are forbidden from endorsing political candidates — a ban on free speech that dates back to 1954, when then-Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson acted to silence the opposition back home in Texas. That underscores what I think is the real problem with government assistance: once you start relying on it, you are forever subject to the vagaries of the political moment.

Afterward I asked McChesney about an idea recently proposed by Dan Gillmor, best known as the author of “We the Media,” to emulate the original idea of postal subsidies by using government funds to pay for universal broadband access. As Gillmor sees it, that, combined with a guarantee of net neutrality, should be enough to allow market forces to do the rest.

“I think we need that no matter what,” McChesney replied. But he added there was “not a shred of evidence” that universal broadband access and net neutrality would be sufficient to guarantee a vibrant press.

Nichols and McChesney’s presentation combined gloom-and-doom with optimism for the future of journalism, if only the public can be mobilized. Like Clay Shirky, they think we have entered a post-advertising era in which it will prove impossible sustain journalism as a commercial enterprise. But whereas Shirky has called for a variety of commercial, non-profit and volunteer-driven experiments, Nichols and McChesney believe the public ought to pay more directly for what it needs to govern itself.

“We are at a 1776 moment,” Nichols said “It is your democracy that is threatened.”

Nichols and McChesney are co-founders of Free Press, an organization that is fighting the good fight on behalf of local ownership of radio and television stations and government guarantees for net neutrality. My reservations aside, Nichols and McChesney are making an important contribution to the discussion over paying for news, and I look forward to reading their book.