There are quite a few different encouraging public policy proposals that could help rebuild local news. Each of the ones we mention below could be implemented on the state or local level in a way that follows Rebuild Local’s principles for sound policy making. These are geared toward ensuring that public policy is nonpartisan, content-neutral, platform neutral, and future friendly.
Tax credits for small businesses to advertise with local news organizations
Provides refundable tax credits to small businesses that buy advertisements or sponsorships with local new organizations. Under the federal version, a small business that purchased $6,000 in advertising would get a $3,000 refundable tax credit.
Pros: Decisions about who benefits would be made by businesses, not government officials. For creative news organizations, this could catalyze relationships that could persist beyond the duration of the subsidy. Bipartisan support.
Cons: Since small businesses do have to put in some of their own money upfront, they will pick the news outlets that they think will deliver on their marketing goals best, which means the benefits could be unevenly distributed in a community.
Tax credits for retaining or hiring local reporters
Provide a refundable local news employment tax credit for newsrooms to help subsidize the cost of local reporters. The federal version would have provided $25,000 per editorial employee in the first year, $15,000 for the next four years.
Pros: Significant direct support to newsrooms, but targeted toward the heart of the problem — falling rates of newsroom employment. Based mostly on clear, universal standards (no subjective judgments about the quality of content).
Cons: Although most cases are straightforward, it would involve a degree of government oversight in some edge-case decisions about what counts as an eligible news outlet. Also could subsidize “pink slime” newsrooms that have local reporters.
Subsidies for consumers to subscribe or donate to a local newsroom
One proposal: “Local News Dollars.” Each resident gets, in effect, a coupon worth a portion of grant from a local government. Residents allocate their share via a government portal. News outlets receive grants worth the value of the “coupons” they received. The program is based on Seattle’s “Democracy Vouchers,” which give residents money to donate to local candidates.
Examples: Local News Funding Act in Washington, D.C.
Pro: Helps publications develop what many industry experts see as a key to future sustainability —reader contributions. Politically appealing as consumers, not government officials, make the decision on who to subsidize. The policy can also be scaled down state and municipal jurisdictions.
Cons: Requires government agency to maintain a list of which news outlets would be eligible, and distribute the funds. Some proponents want it to be just for nonprofit news or only for news outlets without paywalls. No co-pay from residents (i.e free money) so potentially subject to political gamesmanship. (Imagine a local talk radio host organizing listeners to put their dollars into a partisan local outlet).
Pros: Same benefits as the voucher approach but with its own set of challenges.
Cons: Could end up subsidizing mostly those who already have subscriptions rather than generating new ones. Tax benefit accrues more to itemizers who tend to be wealthier.
Target more government advertising toward local newsrooms
Requires governments to target some of their advertising spending toward local media, instead of, say, social media or national media.
Pros: Involves no new spending (a plus in tight budgetary times).
Cons: News organizations must prove that advertising with their outlets will be as effective as the advertising strategies previously used by the government. If poorly constructed, it can provide elected officials with a dangerous ability to reward and punish local press.
The federal government is pouring more than $100 billion for expanding broadband. Much of this goes through states. We have argued that some broadband “digital equity” funds should go to local news organizations to improve their digital presence in preparation for a more online audience and also improve local coverage — especially to help address the information needs of “double deserts,” which are areas that are both un- or under-served by broadband and local news. Local news outlets are also essential partners in advancing key aspects of digital equity and broadband access, like building digital skills and building awareness of new or improved broadband services.
So far, Rebuild Local News has submitted letters to about a half dozen state broadband and digital equity authorities, encouraging them to include local news outlets in their digital equity plans. Several states have expressed initial interest in our proposals including Maine, Kansas and North Carolina. Kansas is likely to include local news outlets in its digital inventory list, which could qualify some local news outlets for state grants. We’re also working with North Carolina stakeholders to include local news outlets on a similar list in North Carolina. Maine also included public access broadcasters as anchor institutions – places or organizations that help residents use the internet and are therefore eligible for some grant funds. We encouraged the Maine Broadband Authority to include all local news outlets in that designation. It accepted Rebuild’s proposal for nonprofit news organizations. States will be releasing the final drafts of their broadband access and digital equity plans in the early months of 2024.
Fellowships or other support for reporters placed in local newsrooms
Provide funds for public university journalism schools or associated nonprofits, such as Report for America, to provide fellowships for recent graduates placed in local newsrooms.
Pros: Direct help to shore up journalism jobs throughout the state. Picks newsrooms rather than reporting projects, which helps make it more First Amendment friendly.
Cons: May not encourage business model sustainability. Involves state government body deciding who gets the fellows.
Direct grants from an independent 501c3 group toward journalism projects
Have a nonprofit group – funded and chartered by the government but operationally independent – provide individual grants to local news outlets.
Examples: New Jersey
Pros: Can more precisely target aid toward news deserts and underserved communities. Can also incentivize local philanthropy to increase their support of local news outlets.
Cons: Involves a government-chartered body making subjective judgments about what projects are most worthwhile. If not carefully constructed, could lead to political favoritism, perceptions of bias and erosion of trust.
Incentives for community institutions to “replant” newspapers
Provides tax incentives or grants to community institutions to either maintain or restore local ownership of newspapers. In addition, there should be a 120-day waiting period when a newspaper is sold to an out of state company, to give time for communities to prepare acquisition bids. Benefits could either restore a chain-owned newspaper to local ownership or incentivize family owned operations to sell to local organizations
Pros: Helps keep local papers in local hands. May prevent further consolidation and possibly prompt hedge-fund-owned chains to replant publications back in the community.
Cons: Affects a relatively small number of publications. May also require incentives for the chains to sell, meaning public money would go to the likes of Alden and Gannett, which may seem unsavory.
There are several other ideas that we think are promising but require a bit more work, or have not yet been turned into a legislative proposal anywhere.
Provide state funds to double-match the matches already provided by Newsmatch, which provides a dollar for dollar match for nonprofit local news organizations that raise money from their communities. That would mean that each dollar contributed by a local resident would be matched and trigger two other dollars to be donated.
Use cases: There is already infrastructure for Newsmatch, this would just augment what already exists.
Pros: Piggybacks on an already established, well-respected mechanism. Few subjective content judgments.
Cons: Newsmatch rewards newsrooms that already have some fundraising capacity.
Local News Bank
Create an institution to provide low-interest, no-interest or loan-to-grant support for local news organizations, especially to fund efforts to become financially sustainable. (“Loan to grant” means that the preferred offering is a loan but under some circumstances the bank, funded by foundations and philanthropists, can turn it into a grant). Could be used for replantings, conversions or startups, for nonprofits or locally-based for-profits (perhaps Public Benefit Corporations). Rebuild Local News has outlined how newsrooms could benefit from new lending approaches.
Pro: Encourages sustainability and local control.
Cons: If organizations don’t develop sound revenue models, they won’t be able to pay back the loan.
Loan forgiveness for public service journalists
Provide forgiveness for the student loans of journalists working in local news.
Use cases: The federal government already has student loan forgiveness for certain kinds of federal service — this program would simply scale that policy to make local journalism jobs more accessible.
Pros: Could help journalists stay in local journalism jobs, some of which tend to be lower paying, longer, and make it easier for people from non-wealthy backgrounds to remain as in the field.
Cons: If it applies to all local reporters (and not just those working at nonprofit organizations), it would require a massive government effort to define who was eligible.