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A federal lifeline for local news | Opinion

A bill pending before Congress — the Local Journalism Sustainability Act — is a thoughtful way to offer financial support to newsrooms without bringing them under government control.

The Inquirer building is shown Monday, May 24, 2021.
The Inquirer building is shown Monday, May 24, 2021.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Inquirer is unique. The newspaper you are reading is the largest American news publication under nonprofit ownership and dedicated solely to the needs of its local community. Owned by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, The Inquirer is supported by thousands of community donations, a broad array of local advertisers, and thousands of paying subscribers. While The Inquirer faces economic challenges, it operates by far the largest newsroom in the region, dedicated to our city’s most important public-service journalism.

Most American newspapers and communities are not so fortunate. Since 2008, the number of newsroom employees in the United States has fallen by about 30,000, or more than 25%. More than 2,100 newspapers — including 70 daily papers — have stopped publishing since 2004.

Local news deserts are being filled by partisan hyperbole, unverified social media posts, and harmful disinformation. 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.

» READ MORE: Give thanks for local journalism | Opinion

The Lenfest Institute was founded in the belief that revitalizing local news requires significant philanthropic support, new investment in journalism, and innovation in digital products. We have come to believe that saving local news also requires some smart help from the federal government, and so we have helped craft national legislation to this effect.

Government help? You might wonder how on earth newsrooms can take money from the government without compromising their editorial independence. Isn’t that akin to the muckrakers being funded by the muck-makers?

Fortunately, there is a thoughtful way to help local news without government control. It’s called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act – and it has a real chance to become law, especially if championed by the Pennsylvania delegation. Now under consideration by Congress, this bipartisan bill provides more help for local news than any legislation in the last century – all accomplished in a decidedly First Amendment-friendly way.

Rather than having the government pick winners and losers, the bill helps newsrooms by amplifying the choices of consumers and small businesses.

The key provisions are:

  1. A tax credit of up to $250 for consumers who buy newspaper subscriptions or make donations to nonprofit local news organizations

  2. A refundable payroll tax credit of up to $25,000 for local news organizations to help pay journalists

  3. A tax credit of up to $5,000 for small businesses to advertise with local publishers

The bill would allow your subscription to this or another newspaper to earn a tax credit. The credit would apply to print and digital subscriptions, which are central to local newspapers’ long-term business plans.

The advertising tax credit has two beneficiaries: the newsroom and the small business receiving the credit. Pennsylvania small businesses could use this tax credit to advertise and build their businesses on the local news platform of their choice.

The payroll tax credit would make the hiring of journalists more affordable. Because it’s a payroll tax break, it is available to both nonprofit and commercial news organizations.

By helping local news through a market-oriented approach, the Local News Sustainability Act has gained bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. As it happens, Pennsylvania’s members of Congress are in a position to have an outsize impact. Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey both serve on the Senate Finance Committee, which helps govern the proposed legislation. Reps. Brendan Boyle and Dwight Evans sit on the House Ways and Means Committee, which would help advance the bill in that chamber.

The Local News Sustainability Act would help create a stronger, more sustainable local news system long into the future. We urge our senators and representatives to help get this bipartisan proposal passed quickly.

Jim Friedlich is CEO and executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit organization that owns The Inquirer. @jimfriedlich