Sen. Maria Cantwell and two others unveiled legislation Thursday to support local news organizations battered by the pandemic. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 37,000 journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed or taken pay cuts, as advertising revenue plummeted.
The bill, called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act of 2021, would create new tax credits for subscribers to local news publications and small businesses that buy advertising in local newspapers, radio and television stations. Another tax credit would subsidize local media outlets’ hiring and retention of journalists.
“The COVID-19 pandemic made it crystal clear that local reporters and newsrooms are essential to keeping the public informed and safe, but their importance spans well beyond health emergencies,” Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “At its core, local news is about holding the powerful accountable.”
Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., are co-sponsoring the bill, which is largely similar to legislation introduced in the House of Representatives last month by Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.
One tax credit, for news consumers, would cover up to $250 in subscription costs for five years. Another, for businesses employing up to 50 people, would defray up to $5,000 spent on advertising in local news outlets, including newspapers, television programs, digital-only news sources and radio shows, for five years.
The third credit would give local news outlets a big tax break for every journalist they employ, up to $25,000 per journalist the first year after the bill’s passage and up to $15,000 per year in the subsequent four years.
It’s not yet clear how much the tax break package could cost. But previously, Cantwell has said she planned to seek $2.3 billion in tax breaks to support the local news industry.
Cantwell has been a prominent advocate for local news organizations on Capitol Hill. Last fall, she released a report slamming big tech companies for decimating local news outlets. Earlier last year, she added a provision to the COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill that made local news outlets eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program.
The Seattle Times, which received $10 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds last year, has also been at the forefront of efforts to direct federal aid to newsrooms. The paper has spent $120,000 in the past nine months asking lawmakers to appropriate funds for local news outlets, according to federal lobbying disclosures. In late 2019, Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen launched an initiative pushing for government subsidies for local news organizations and to force tech companies like Google and Facebook to pay news outlets for their content.
News unions and publishers heralded the bill, which has been filed for introduction but not yet assigned a number.
“This legislation provides a much-needed boost to save local news jobs,” Jon Schleuss, president of The NewsGuild, which represents thousands of employees at news outlets nationwide, including at The Seattle Times, said in a statement. “The erosion of local news puts our democracy at threat of extinction.”