If President Joe Biden wants to build back better, he should sustain local news organizations as part of his $3 trillion infrastructure plan.
Taxpayers would get more out of the Biden package, and the overall effort to grow the economy would be stronger and more inclusive, if a tiny fraction was invested in this critical but failing civic infrastructure.
Judging from initial reports last week, the infrastructure proposal is smart, necessary and exciting.
Biden is thinking broadly about what the country needs for its next era of success. The package includes not just roads and bridges but funding for research and development, new energy systems, schools and colleges.
This is a generational investment of Americans’ money that could transform their communities, lives and future.
Yet how will they get involved and informed, especially locally, of where the dollars will actually be spent? Who will hold local officials accountable for their execution of the plan, root out corruption and record progress for posterity?
Those things are done by local news outlets, mostly newspapers. But they are shrinking and disappearing, with thousands of papers closing and more than half of their reporting jobs disappearing over the last 15 years.
Of course this is self-interested. The news industry is lining up like everyone else for a share of a potential windfall.
But there is substantial public interest in preventing the extinction of America’s local news system, especially as the country begins a spending spree.
I’ve argued that local news is an essential part of democracy’s infrastructure, and should receive federal support along with election security and civic education that Congress is considering.
Local news should also be seen as essential to the success of major public spending.
Think of the tsunami of local and regional government activity the infrastructure plan would generate, and how much local reporting and accountability journalism that would require.
Thousands of projects would be sited, permitted and put out for bid. Reporting is needed at every step, from conception through operation.
Even if locals don’t attend hearings or engage with those processes, at some point they’ll need to be informed of progress and job opportunities their tax dollars are creating.
Perhaps most importantly during a surge in government spending, taxpayers need the accountability service that’s still primarily provided by local newspapers.
The presence of local newspapers results in more efficient government spending and lower bonding costs, according to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame and University of Illinois at Chicago. They found local papers are needed for evaluating the quality of public projects and local governments.
“Newspaper closures lead to higher borrowing costs in the long run, suggesting that alternative sources of media, such as the internet, are not acting as sufficient substitutes for these local newspapers,” they wrote.
Newspapers also increase public engagement that public projects require.
So Biden and America will accomplish more if a small fraction of the $3 trillion is spent to sustain the local news system.
Don’t think of this as shifting dollars from failing bridges to failing newspapers. There will be plenty of ancillary spending. Consider it another soft cost, one of the many services that together may take a third or more of an infrastructure project budget.
One half percent of $3 trillion would be enough to create a grant program to sustain local news organizations in every state and incentivize local ownership groups to provide coverage in thousands of communities with no local news outlet.
Or think of it as building a bridge for local news, as it transitions to sustainable new business models.
This is especially needed in smaller towns and rural areas, away from coastal cities where wealth and economic growth is concentrated and local news does relatively well.
Biden is sensitive to geographic disparities. He pledged to distribute infrastructure spending across every state and help workers in places left behind in recent years.
Many of those same places also lost newspapers that bound their communities, gave voice to their issues and held officials accountable. It will take more than capital spending to mend them.
A grant program, such as one being developed by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, could equitably fund local journalism without compromising the independence of news organizations.
That would complement other proposals in Congress. One seeks immediate relief via tax credits to preserve reporting jobs. Another would address unfair competition by tech giants dominating digital ad markets.
Journalism grants would be especially apt if the infrastructure package is funded in part by new taxes on digital platforms like Google and Facebook. They now collect most of the ad revenue that used to support local news.
The Biden administration recently signaled support of an international effort to standardize taxation of such multinational digital companies. At a minimum, that has bearing on the corporate tax increase floated as one of the ways to fund infrastructure.
Regardless of the funding source, Biden and Congress should consider including journalism grants in the package. America’s local news system is essential infrastructure, for democracy and the success of any grand public investment.