Back when COVID-19 first took hold, prompting shutdowns and sparking fears and worse, Americans — en masse — turned to a reliable source of information, a source they had learned long ago they could trust and depend on: local newspapers. And, “News outlets rose to the challenge of informing communities,” as Brier Dudley, editor of the Seattle Times’ Save the Free Press Initiative, wrote in a column in July.
Despite the critical roles they play and service they provide in their communities, and in spite of their undeniable importance as watchdogs and sources of accuracy and truth in our representative democracy, newspapers are hardly enjoying heady times right now. An estimated 30,000 newsroom jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2020, WGBH-TV, the PBS station in Boston, reported this summer. In addition, approximately 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving about 1,800 communities across the country without local news coverage.
One of the most recent “news deserts” is right here in Minnesota, in International Falls, where the Journal newspaper — not long ago the “Daily Journal” — was shut down in June by the Manhattan-based hedge fund that had purchased it just a year earlier.
There is hope, however. There are those working to save local news. And there is progress to report.
Dudley and his free press-supporting initiative reported last week that the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that the House Ways and Means Committee was finalizing. The act would create tax credits of up to $12,500 per quarter for print or digital local newspaper publishers employing and hiring local journalists. The credits are meant to help staunch the layoffs that have reduced newspaper staffs because of financial challenges.
If approved in the House, the act would move to the Senate, “where saving local journalism has support from key leaders,” Dudley wrote.
“I've argued before that local journalism is critical infrastructure of democracy. It's especially needed as the federal government embarks on a historic wave of domestic investment,” Dudley stated. “Just as Americans turned to local news during the pandemic, they'll need local reporting to keep them informed of how these trillions are spent locally, what opportunities they create and how to participate. ...
“Accountability that local newspapers provide has also been found to lower government costs,” according to Dudley. “That means Americans will get more bang for the buck if they support local news along with infrastructure spending. This is not government controlling the press. Local journalism is a public good, and Congress is helping it survive. Tax credits incentivize hiring and retaining journalists but don't influence reporting or pick winners. If anything, this continues the government's long history of subsidies to help keep Americans informed and prepared to participate in democracy. That began with postal subsidies for periodicals the founders created in 1792.”
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act isn’t the only legislation aiming to prop up the importance of local news. The Journalism and Competition Preservation Act — which has as one of its main sponsors U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — would help small and large news outlets negotiate content-usage agreements with digital platforms like Google and Facebook. Right now, those tech giants are getting rich republishing local content, while the local outlets bear all the costs of newsgathering. There's no way individual newspapers can wield enough economic heft to negotiate effectively with the online giants, but a “safe harbor” from antitrust laws, as detailed in the act, could help publishers join together in the name of recouping and recapturing lost subscription and advertising dollars.
There also are national nonprofits working to save local news, including the Journalism Funding Partners (jfp-local.org/impact) and the Fund for Local Journalism (givebutter.com/fundforlocaljournalism). Their laudable efforts also deserve our support.
Perhaps never has the need to protect and preserve local news — and the access to the reliable information Americans need to inform their lives — been as clear as during the pandemic. It’s on all of us to support congressional, nonprofit, and other efforts to ensure that critical need continues to be met. It’s on all of us to support and ensure the future of local news.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.