In President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation — which may or may not make it through the U.S. Senate — there is a section called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
It offers a suite of government-sponsored incentives in support of local newspapers, online publications and TV and radio. It includes tax credits for subscribing and advertising, as well as compensation support for reporters and editors.
The Wall Street Journal last week called it a “$1.7 billion subsidy for local journalists, most of whom are left of center.” That’s wrong. It’s the conclusion of an out-of-touch elitist, if you will.
As a former local newspaper reporter, I can say two things with certainty.
One, covering the cop beat, or zoning, or courts, or school boards — or even local and state politics — rarely overlaps with the traditional Democratic-Republican divide as it’s understood on a national level. And two, I’ve almost never seen a local reporter who let his or her personal politics work its way into their stories. On the contrary, it’s the opposite.
Long after I left the newspaper industry — and subsequently got involved in local land use and the Democratic Town Committee — I found that journalist friends would suddenly keep their distance, lest they be perceived as biased.
These honest people, though highly educated, are no one’s idea of affluent — they earn lower wages than a school custodian or a police officer.
As I think about Build Back Better, and its efforts to support local journalism, I generally applaud. For years, the traditional media ecosystem has been sick. It might even be terminal. Craigslist destroyed the classified advertising business. Free content — the dogma of the early internet — badly damaged the subscription business. The Google-Facebook duopoly (and now Amazon, too) has the advertising business on life support for everyone else.
Things really aren’t looking good.
Combined print and digital circulation in the newspaper industry was 28.6 million in 2018, the most recent year where data was available, representing the lowest circulation level in 80 years. Ad revenue declined by 62% between 2008 and 2018. And layoffs, exacerbated by the global pandemic, are hammering the industry.
“News deserts” have formed across the country and “ghost newspapers” — shells of their former selves are like the walking dead, zombies, unable to perform their essential democratic functions.
Over the last 16 years, 2,100 newspapers have disappeared, leaving 1,800 communities with no local journalism at all, according to the University of North Carolina research. Since 2018, according to UNC, 300 newspapers closed, another 6,000 journalists employed by newspapers vanished.
Taking the place of local media is a toxic stew of rumor, fake news and ignorance, all perfectly exemplified by the nastiness of ubiquitous Facebook groups in local towns and cities.
So if Build Back Better can help shift the momentum, that’s good. What it cannot do, under any circumstances, is offer financial support to the venture capitalists and hedge funds that are gutting local journalism. What it cannot do is line the pockets of executives with no money reaching the front lines. And for its part, local media has to do a better job of connecting buyers and sellers than Facebook or Google.
Government payouts aren’t the long-term solution. Instead, the media industry and Congress together need to revolutionize the way they think of Google and social-distribution channels. They need to start charging Facebook for the use of their content. They need to think not in terms of free distribution, but instead, of receiving royalties for the use of their intellectual property.