A huge help for Black and Hispanic local publishers
One of the most exciting aspects of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is how it will help smaller publishers, especially those serving Black, Hispanic and other ethnic communities.
In a new case study we’ve just published, Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, the publisher of The Afro-American, estimates that her team would be able to add four reporters – doubling their editorial staff. They also think it would help stimulate more advertising spending from small businesses. In all, her small publication – which was founded four generations ago by John Henry Murphy Sr., who was formerly enslaved – would gain somewhere between $602,000 and $852,000 over five years. The paper’s managing editor said the growth would enable her team to increase their number of beat reporters, which would strengthen trust from the community.
This is why the bill has been endorsed by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents local Black newspapers and websites, as well as the National Association of Hispanic Publications. As Dr. Ben Chavis, CEO of the NNPA wrote in a new letter endorsing the bill, the collapse of local news has been particularly consequential in Black communities. “In Black communities, we are witnessing the dire consequences. Purveyors of misinformation have targeted our residents, flooding us with dangerously wrong information about COVID, elections and other matters,” Chavis wrote.
The bill has three components: a tax credit for consumers to buy subscriptions or make donations to local news; a payroll tax credit tied to the number of journalists; and a tax credit for small businesses to advertise in local media.
The approach is quite different from previous efforts, which were more top down. It’s theoretically possible to construct a federal grant program that would go to publishers targeted to under-served communities. But in reality it often ends up skewed to those who have lobbyists or know how to do grant writing. This more bottom-up approach gives smaller players a much better shot.
Some have criticized the bill for providing benefits to legacy media organization, many of which have a terrible record of covering BIPOC communities. It’s true that as with any universal-benefit program, there will be people or organizations that get support that you or I might dislike. That’s true of the charitable deduction. That was true of the postal subsidy. It’s true of public broadcasting. But the key point is that in this bill, it’s not a zero-sum program. If some wealthy newspapers gets a benefit, it doesn’t come out of the pocket of a less affluent community. If they qualify, they get it. Period.
Approaches that rely on government grants tend to benefit those who can hire lobbyists, invariably providing less to small players, or marginalized players. The bottom-up approach allows media of different shapes and sizes benefit regardless of whether they’re plugged into a particular power structure.
Finally, it’s focused on local reporting. Oftentimes, advertisers spend with national Black or Hispanic TV stations or publications in order to reach similar audiences. Local publishers end up getting left out. In this case, the advertisers only get the benefit if they spend it on local publications.
It’s an experiment, but I think this approach has a much greater chance than the top-down approach that has been mostly tried in the past.
“For decades and in some cases centuries, our publications — and those serving other ethnic communities — have played a crucial role in informing the nation in an accurate and fair manner about the lives of Americans whose stories were not being told in so-called mainstream publications,” declared a letter to Speaker Pelosi from the National Association of Hispanic Publications. “But these publications are struggling — and it would be a tragedy of historical proportions if, having survived so many obstacles, they were done in by the digital revolution or short-sighted public policies.”
Steven Waldman is 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. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is also coordinator of the Rebuild Local News coalition.