We’ve been asking readers “What do you want to know about the local journalism crisis?”
Here are more answers to readers’ questions about the Seattle Times’ efforts to shore up America’s free-press system.
Got a question? Go to the “Ask the Free Press Editor” link at the bottom of this post. Please use that instead of my email.
Q. It would be interesting to see a chart showing how many journalists exist in various local and major papers now versus, say in 1980 and 2000 .
Free Press Editor: It’s hard to be precise, since newspapers don’t all supply figures to a central authority, but it’s safe to say there are less than half as many reporters at work now than even a decade ago.
In its most recent State of the News Media report, the Pew Research Center looked at two overlapping studies and estimated 47% fewer newspaper reporters were at work in 2018 than were a decade earlier. That drop has almost certainly increased in the last year, since newspapers were already shedding staff before the pandemic froze the U.S. economy.
I’m testing a statewide survey and will report back on Washington’s losses if I get good data. Meanwhile, the Tow Center at Columbia University is launching a global survey of newsroom job losses during the pandemic.
Q. “A few years ago, there was talk of modifying federal tax laws to benefit local newspapers. Would that help? Is it a beneficial idea?”
Free Press Editor: Short answer is, yes, there have been tax revisions and they have helped.
Long answer (any discussion of tax codes guarantees a long answer!) is that in the future, these efforts will be divided into “Pre-pandemic-era” and “Post-pandemic.”
Post-pandemic: Right now in Washington, D.C., 18 Democrats in the U.S. Senate are pushing for stimulus funds for local (as opposed to nationwide) news organizations shivering in the economic freeze brought on by the pandemic. No detailed proposals have been released, but tax-code revisions would likely be part of any comprehensive approach. Stay tuned for details.
Pre-pandemic: As digital advertising and e-tailing shifted ad dollars away from traditional news outlets, there have been several changes to federal law to increase the survival rate of local newspapers.
- The Save the Community Newspaper Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump Dec. 20 of 2019, allows at least a dozen “community” newspapers — publications that are privately owned and operate mainly within a single state — to delay some payments into their employee pension funds. It won’t reduce pensions, but it gave papers the option to make more, but smaller, payments, sort of like the difference between a 15-year mortgage and and a 30-year.
- Without that relief, The Seattle Times would have been threatened with bankruptcy within a year or two, publisher Frank Blethen said at the time the bill was passed. Other local papers benefiting include the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times, the Albuquerque Journal, the Bangor Daily News, and the Watertown (New York) Daily Times, plus The Yakima Herald-Republic and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, both of which are owned by The Seattle Times Co.
- The Blethen family and other family owners of local newspaper companies have lobbied successfully for reductions in the federal inheritance tax. Repealed in 2001 with a phase-out, it was scheduled to vanish in 2010, but then Congress revived it in 2011, charging 35% on estates larger than $5 million. Newspaper owners and other opponents of inheritance taxes won a partial victory in recent years. As of this year, no federal taxes are due on the first $11,580,000 of an estate. In Washington State, inheritance taxes kick in after the first $2.19 million. Newspaper-owning families argue the estate tax has pushed newspapers out of local hands when those who inherit have to sell their newspaper to pay the 40% federal inheritance tax rate and the 10-20% Washington state charges.
- The state does not collect sales taxes when readers buy a newspaper, but newspapers pay a Washington Business and Occupations tax of .0035 times their gross receipts for advertising and newspaper owners would like relief from that tax as well.
If you want to ask a question, please use this Ask the Free Press Editor link instead of my email.