Steven Waldman, coordinator of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and co-founder and president of Report for America, highlights the crisis being faced by local journalism — and suggests a smart solution.
If you’re reading W42ST.com, you already value journalism that covers vital topics of importance. What you may not realize is that publications like this superb one have been in a deep crisis around the country.
During the past two decades, the number of newspaper reporters has dropped by 36,000 — or 60%. Some 1,800 communities have lost newspapers. News deserts and “ghost newspapers” — newsrooms so desolate that they don’t truly cover the town — abound across the country.
This is a serious threat to our communities. Too often, the local news vacuums are being filled by social media, partisan hyperbole, and harmful disinformation. Without good, accurate information, individuals cannot make good decisions for themselves — and communities cannot solve their own problems.
Rebuilding local news will require a massive effort that must include a significant increase in philanthropic support.
But philanthropy will not be enough. Community news organizations need some (smart) help from the government — and Senator Chuck Schumer, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and our other representatives are in a unique position to make it happen.
Government help, you might ask? How on Earth can newsrooms take money from the government? Isn’t that like the muckrakers taking money from the muckmakers?
Fortunately, there is a shrewd way to help save local news without excessively involving the government. It’s called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. 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.
It helps small media as well as larger players, nonprofits as well as commercial models, digital and print, communities of color and rural areas. The key provisions are:
- Tax credit of up to $250 for consumers to buy newspaper subscriptions or make donations to nonprofit local news organizations.
- A refundable payroll tax credit of up to $25,000 for local news organizations for journalists
- A tax credit of up to $5,000 for small businesses that advertise with local news publishers.
Because it’s a tax credit, there’s no government agency picking journalism projects. It’s akin to the Postal Subsidy implemented by the Founding Fathers.
The refundable tax credit for small businesses to advertise has two beneficiaries, the newsroom and the small business which basically gets free marketing money. Hell’s Kitchen and west side businesses would essentially get almost $5,000 to advertise their services, as long as it’s through community media like W42ST.com.
The payroll tax credit goes right to a core problem — that current business models don’t support labor-intensive types of journalism. This tax credit could change the dynamics within newsrooms by making the hiring or retaining of journalists relatively more appealing.
The crisis in local journalism is a crisis for communities. We urge Senator Schumer, Rep. Jeffries and our other representatives to get this into the big budget bill currently before Congress.
This bill is not just a stop-gap but rather would help create a stronger, more inclusive local news system in the future, with publications like the W42ST.com playing a central role for decades to come.
Steven Waldman is coordinator of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and also co-founder and president of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.