The local news system is collapsing throughout the country, leading to discussions about whether the government needs to help. But that raises a tough question: How on Earth can journalists hold politicians accountable if we’re getting money from them?
Actually, there are government policies that can help address the collapse of local news while protecting editorial independence. These strategies borrow from the experience of The Inquirer and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, its nonprofit owner.
It’s important to understand the size of the crisis. I led an effort for the Federal Communications Commission in 2011, warning of a collapse of local news. Even before COVID-19, local newspapers had lost about half their jobs since 2008 — about the same scale as the contraction of the coal and steel industries. COVID-19 has accelerated the decline. Estimates are that in the last two months, 36,000 newsroom workers were laid off, furloughed, or had their pay cut. In my current role, as president of Report for America, which places journalists into local communities, we’re seeing that news organizations now have a flood of readers and a drought of revenue.
This isn’t just a matter of losing more jobs. Studies have shown that communities with weak local news have more government waste, corruption, and pollution — and less civic involvement and ability to solve local problems.
How can government help without making matters worse? Let’s take a cue from the Founding Fathers. They subsidized the growth of the free press by giving discount postal rates to newspapers.
Those policies were content-neutral and indirect. Here are a few specific ideas that meet those tests:
First, run more public health advertising and have it go through local media. Before COVID-19, the federal government spent about $1 billion a year in advertising. The government should now spend another $1-$2 billion on advertising for public health, military recruitment, and census completion.
This time, a good chunk should reach the public through local media. And at least half of that local share should be advertising or underwriting in news organizations that are locally owned or nonprofit, including ethnic weeklies, local nonprofits, public ratio, and other community-grounded news organizations.
Second, encourage the replanting of newspapers back into communities. Attorney General William Barr recently decried media consolidation and praised the days when “the press was so fragmented that the power of any one organ was small” and a multiplicity of newspapers “cultivated a wide variety of views and localized opinion.”
He’s right. About 700 newspapers are owned or controlled by a few private equity or hedge funds. COVID-19 is likely to be another wave of mergers and acquisitions by private equity funds.
In truth, many great newspapers could survive and serve as important local institutions if they weren’t laden with debt or required to produce double-digit profits — and if they could to draw philanthropic support from the community as an additional revenue stream, such as the Inquirer/Lenfest model.
Let’s allow owners to take a significant charitable deduction on their taxes if they donate the newspaper to a local nonprofit or public-mission-oriented B corporation.
Third, change the tax code to create incentives for journalism. The IRS should clarify that nonpartisan, local journalism can be considered a legitimate public purpose. Nonprofit news organizations should also be able to accept underwriting or advertising without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. And taxpayers should be able to take deductions when buying a news subscription.
Commercial news organizations should get tax incentives to hire journalists; and local businesses should get tax credits for advertising in local media.
Finally, let’s recast local journalism as a public service profession. We need to get more local reporters on the ground and again view local reporting as a public service calling.
These are all measures that resemble the Founders’ approach — content-neutral and broad-based. COVID-19 is terrifying. Curing local media does not need to be.