Guest opinion: Local news hangs in the balance

The Senate is now deciding the fate of local news.

As part of the Build Back Better Act, the Senate is in the next few days considering an important proposal: providing a payroll tax credit to local news organizations to retain or hire local journalists.

Why? Local news is in a deep crisis. The internet has fundamentally broken the business model of most local newspapers. The number of reporters has dropped by more than half since 2000.

There are at least 1,800 total “news deserts” — communities with no local newspapers at all — and thousands more have “ghost newspapers” that have been so gutted that they barely cover the community.

Professor Penny Abernathy, the leading authority on news deserts, this week projected that if past patterns continue more than 100 newspapers will close next year and 500 will shut in the next five years if Congress doesn’t act.

This is having catastrophic consequences. Studies have shown that when local news declines, communities have more corruption, more waste, lower voting and even lower bond ratings. It cripples the community’s ability to solve their own problems.

How can residents know how to fix their schools if no one is providing them accurate independent information about how their local tax dollars are being spent? How can you address economic development, crime or health care without knowing the facts? Where will people learn accurate information about local COVID vaccinations?

The decline of local news has fostered division and polarization. The vacuums that have been created have been increasingly filled by misinformation, national cable news and fake local news sites. The only way to combat misinformation is with trusted, accurate information.

This is a thoroughly nonpartisan, bipartisan issue. The communities harmed are disproportionately Republican but every town and city suffers when people don’t have accurate information.

No journalist loves the idea of the government helping them out. The crisis has become so existential that temporary measures like this are necessary — and this particular provision is shrewdly constructed to avoid First Amendment problems. It’s a tax credit to all those newsrooms that cover local communities; there’s no federal bureaucracy dispensing grants to local newsrooms that the president likes. It’s content neutral and would benefit newspapers, TV stations, websites and public radio.

The cost is minuscule compared to the rest of the Build Back Better package — less than 0.1 percent of its total. But this provision is the only thing in the bill that would help save democracy.

As of Nov. 3, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is back in the Build Back Better Act (budget reconciliation bill).

The LJSA was removed on Oct. 28 along with many other measures, but was put back in as a result of the strong support from the bill’s sponsors and co-sponsors, members of the Ways and Means Committee, and House and Senate leadership.

America’s Newspapers CEO Dean Ridings said: “Our industry has really come together to support the LJSA. The net result is that communities across the U.S. will continue to receive the important news and information they need from their local newspapers, radio and TV stations. I’ve never been more proud to work for newspapers than today.”

The bill is expected to be brought to a vote in the next week or so. It is still important for publishers and leaders from America’s Newspapers to let their members of Congress know how important this bill is to them, and to thank them for their support.

Please urge your state’s senators and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer to support this nonpartisan provision to help save local news.

Editor’s note: This billw as sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and original co-sponsors Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), and includes among its co-sponsors Se. Patty Murray (D-WA).

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and the co-founder and president of Report for America.