State attorneys general are stepping up to save local newspapers, which they see as essential.
Led by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a coalition of 16 AGs is urging U.S. House and Senate budget leaders to pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
The LJSA would help stop a death spiral of newspaper layoffs and closures that accelerated during the pandemic. It would increase retention and hiring of local journalists with temporary tax credits to small and regional news outlets. It would also provide credits to subscribers and small businesses advertising locally.
“Local news is essential to the health of our states, communities, and our democracy,” the AGs wrote in an Oct. 14 letter.
Their timing is excellent. Congress is close to finalizing a budget bill, in which the core of the LJSA, credits for preserving journalist jobs, was included.
“The impetus was really just obviously supporting the bill and thinking that AGs had a certain perspective on the role of the media in our democracy that we thought was important to emphasize,” Ferguson told me.
Fifteen of the signers were Democrats like Ferguson and one was a Republican, New Hampshire’s John Formella.
Most are also part of multistate antitrust cases to stop Google and Facebook from abusing their dominant positions, which is another factor in newspapers’ plight. Ferguson is also suing Facebook for flouting state political-advertising transparency laws.
With the letter, Ferguson extends Washington’s leadership on saving local news. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Yakima Valley Republican, were original LJSA co-sponsors.
Newspapers are particularly valued by Ferguson, and not just because he’s a savvy politician expected to run for governor.
Ferguson grew up in a household that subscribed to several newspapers, with six siblings who scrambled for the sports section. His first job was delivering the weekly Queen Anne News, followed by a stint delivering The Seattle Times.
Of course I needed to hear more about why Ferguson is joining the fight to save local journalism and what’s at stake. Edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q: Do you expect political blowback from endorsing a bill sponsored by a Republican?
A: I don’t worry about that. That’s irrelevant.
Q: Do you have any particular concerns about journalism in Washington, especially outside metro areas?
A: Speaking personally and as attorney general, in pre-COVID days when I traveled around the state I routinely dropped into the local newspapers. That’s in part a reflection of the important role local media has, that it’s a unique source of information for people across our state. To lose that would have real impacts on information that people receive. You can draw a straight line from that to maintaining our form of government and democracy.
Q: Have you seen changes in the abundance of media?
A: Oh yeah. Just walking into those offices, there’s more empty seats than there were a few years before and a couple years before that. Seeing the impact that COVID in particular has had on media, the strain on media from all sorts of threats is real and apparent whether you’re in my job or just a Washingtonian looking for local news.
Q: The House Judiciary investigation of dominant platforms identified harms to local journalism. But I didn’t see that addressed in the state antitrust cases; they were more about mergers and business practices and things like that. Will journalism harms be remedied through the state cases?
A: I’m always careful about active stuff we’ve got going on.
Q: OK, is it unreasonable to think journalism organizations that were particularly harmed, according to the federal investigation, will be part of the conversation at some point, maybe when we reach consent decrees or settlements down the road?
A: That’s a reasonable perspective. I don’t think I can say a whole lot more than that, but I think that’s a perspective folks will be sharing.
Q: Historically, newspapers provided consumer-protection service, and when we held people or institutions accountable that would sometimes feed investigations by attorneys general. As we’ve dwindled and do fewer investigations, it seems like it puts more of the onus on AG offices to do that accountability work. Is that right?
A: That’s an understatement. It is not unusual for me to be reading the newspaper and call the head of my consumer protection division and say, ‘Have you seen this news article? It’s an investigative report about a company that may not be playing by the rules, hey, we need to look into that.’ Those calls have led to major investigations and court cases we’ve had.
Having fewer resources for newspapers to do that type of reporting is a loss for the people at the end of the day. Those issues aren’t daylighted, and it makes it harder for us and the people to know what’s going on. That’s a big issue for us. My civil-rights team and consumer-protection team read the newspapers religiously, and we talk about articles during our weekly calls. Or it could be media from other sources, radio or TV, but I would say it’s predominantly from the newspapers.
Q: Cynics might think politicians would rather have fewer media outlets, so they can speak directly to the public through the voters guide. What are your thoughts?
A: I think of it more as a voter. Like right now, we have a lot of races going on, and I’ve been reading The Seattle Times about local races religiously — and I’m someone who actually knows these candidates pretty well! Sometimes there are races where I don’t really know them and to get that information from those independent news sources is important to me as a voter, as a citizen to make an informed choice, where I’m not simply relying on what the candidate puts into their sometimes self-serving voter pamphlet statement.
Q: So Ann Davison or Nicole Thomas-Kennedy for Seattle City Attorney?
A: Ha ha, nice try. My candidate lost in the primary.