Deadlines are a fact of life for the reporters, editors, web producers, visual journalists, and others at the heart of America’s free press. But today we face a deadline of a different sort. The number of newsroom employees in the United States has fallen by almost 60% since 2000. Since 2004, over 2,100 newspapers — including 70 daily papers — have stopped publishing altogether.
In the next few days, Congress will decide the fate of a federal bill called The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, designed to help reverse these trends.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act has been the subject of earlier advocacy by The Lenfest Institute, the nonprofit owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Earlier versions of the bill included proposed tax credits for consumers buying news subscriptions, for small businesses advertising in local news publications, and — most critically — for news organizations hiring and retaining journalists.
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This provision is now part of the Build Back Better bill, the major legislation pushed by the Biden administration. The current version of the bill has jettisoned the subscription and advertising tax credits to reduce cost to the American taxpayer. But the bill retains its most important and direct support, a refundable payroll tax credit of up to $25,000 per journalist to help local news organizations hire and retain reporters and editors, the lifeblood of local news coverage and the democracy it helps sustain.
So what’s the problem? As Republicans and Democrats have fought over the size and scope of the Build Back Better legislation, trade-offs are being made including on health care, tax policy, public safety, education, infrastructure, energy policy and environmental reform.
Those are all important needs. But what is distinctive — and distinctively important — about the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is that a strong local press informs and empowers Americans to participate in each and every one of these vital issues. It’s a relatively inexpensive proposal — less than 0.1% of the total legislation — but it is the only provision before Congress that addresses the disinformation and misinformation now threatening to destroy our democracy. Absent a strong press, local news deserts are being filled by harmful disinformation, partisan hyperbole, and unverified, often bogus, social media posts. Without accurate, independent news and information, families cannot make informed decisions about their health or education, communities cannot hold government accountable, and democracy itself comes under dire threat.
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Support for the sustainability of local news, what should be viewed as the very glue that helps hold our democracy together, may be seen as expendable as the Build Back Better bill is finalized.
Several of Pennsylvania’s members of Congress have pledged their support including Philadelphia-area Reps. Brendan Boyle and Dwight Evans, who sit on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which will be critical in deciding this provision’s fate, and Sen. Bob Casey of the decisive Senate Finance Committee.
It is both gratifying and appropriate that Philadelphia and Pennsylvania representatives fight to preserve a strong and independent press. We are, after all, the city and state in which American democracy was born and the First Amendment was coined. It will take broad and enthusiastic support from the Pennsylvania delegation and from across America to enact the Local Journalism Sustainability Act into law. The United States Congress will decide within a few days or weeks whether to enact this proposed benefit to nearly every community in America. As we say in the news business, “We’re on deadline.”
Jim Friedlich is CEO and executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit organization that owns The Inquirer. @jimfriedlich