Why public policy
Government is not the only solution to the crisis in local news—but smart public policy is essential. Why?
The crisis is severe – and beyond the capacity of only philanthropy. Since 2000, newspaper advertising revenue dropped $40 billion – an 81% decline. The consequences are significant – more corruption, higher taxes, lower voting turnout, more polarization.
Local news is “a public good” – a service that may not always be profitable but has great importance to a community. Think elementary schools, hospitals and libraries. In those cases, public policy needs to help.
Public policy has helped the media at key moments in American history – The government has devised policies that are nonpartisan and First Amendment friendly. Here’s what we can learn from history.
Time is of the essence. If we don’t, we will enter into a grotesque era of “tribal news” on the local level. Trustworthy local information will be replaced by social media garbage, partisan harangues and misinformation. Instead, we need an era of “civic news.”
There are solutions that would help without undermining editorial independence. Here’s how.
To be safe and effective, public policies to help media need to be:
No ability for government officials to steer money to favored news outlets
No bias toward a particular medium, print vs. broadcast vs. digital
No government official deciding who gets what
The crisis is local. That’s where the focus should be
The Coalition pulled together a comprehensive plan that would double the number of local reporters while preserving editorial independence
Here are some of the most promising policy proposals to rebuild local news, including support for hiring and retaining journalists, tax credits for small businesses that advertise with local news, and more.
Local Journalism Sustainability Act
The best piece of federal legislation is the bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act, authored by Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick and Republican Dan Newhouse. (It was quite bipartisan). It was introduced in the Senate by Maria Cantwell. It would provide:
- A tax credit for consumers to buy local news subscriptions or donate to nonprofit local news
- A tax credit for small businesses to advertise in local news
- A payroll tax credit for local publishers or stations to retain or hire local reporters
The federal government spends about $1 billion a year on advertising. What if they targeted half toward local news instead of national cable or social media? We’re starting to find out thanks to experiments in states and cities where it’s been a success.
Hedge funds & antitrust
About half of the daily newspaper circulation in America is now owned by hedge funds, which usually cut local news staffs drastically. Here’s a plan for how to use better antitrust enforcement to improve local news.
Banking & Financing
Sometimes local news organizations struggle because they can’t get financing to hire ad sellers or fundraisers, improve their technology. Some communities would like to own local newspapers but do not have “patient,” local capital to help. We need to improve the system of local financing.
There are more than 6,000 local newspapers that are struggling. Often, they are owned by big chains or hedge funds. Some of these could be “replanted” back into communities with policies that help local nonprofit groups or residents acquire the papers and control them locally.
Direct government grants to news organizations can be fraught – but there are ways to do it without endangering editorial independence.
Regulating Tech Platforms
Some lawmakers have proposed legislation compelling Facebook and Google to pay news organizations for their content. The Coalition is neutral on this.
State & Local Efforts
Many of these ideas – and others – are being tried out in states and cities, including interesting proposals in Wisconsin, New Jersey, California and others.
The Coalition issues bulletins guiding local news organizations or foundations on how they might be able to use public policy to help survive. Recent bulletins included: How newsrooms have leveraged American Rescue Plan funds and how journalists can navigate public service loan forgiveness.