The United States cannot truly “build back better” without local news to inform and engage its citizens.

Congress seems to appreciate this, with tremendous last-minute efforts in the House to restore funding for payroll tax credits that are key to saving local news outlets.

Now it’s up to the Senate to ensure this temporary but critical measure remains in the final budget reconciliation package.

This is essential as the country invests in new social programs, voting reforms and physical infrastructure. Troubles will continue if democracy’s cornerstone, its local free press system, continues to erode without federal support.

Temporary tax credits, as first proposed in the bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act, are the best available solution to preserve remaining newsroom jobs and incentivize adding more.

Their cost is relatively minimal, less than 0.1% of the Build Back Better package. House budget writers cut the credits as the spending package was reduced by half, but restored them Wednesday with leadership by Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal.

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It’s not exaggerating to say that without the credits, hundreds more communities and millions of voters will lose their primary source of civic knowledge.

At least 100 local newspapers will close next year and 500 over the next five years if Congress doesn’t help, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Northwestern Journalism professor who documented America’s news deserts.

One such desert is spreading across the home state of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The number of local papers in New York declined 40% since 2004, and the reach of remaining papers is down 63%.

If all politics are local, and local newspapers are the primary way voters are informed of local issues, how can the system hold up if the local-news death spiral isn’t stopped?

I’ve said this many times, so I’ll pass the microphone to others raising the alarm.

“It’s a relatively inexpensive proposal — less than 0.1% of the total legislation — but it is the only provision before Congress that addresses the disinformation and misinformation now threatening to destroy our democracy,” Jim Friedlich, CEO of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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“Absent a strong press, local news deserts are being filled by harmful disinformation,  partisan hyperbole, and unverified, often bogus, social media posts. 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.”

Juan-Carlos Molleda, dean of the University of Oregon’s journalism school, wrote this in The Oregonian:

“This is essential because local news is collapsing around the country.  Because the internet has destroyed local news business models, there has been a 60% drop in the number of reporters since 2000. Thousands of communities have no newspapers or ‘ghost newspapers’ that barely cover communities.”  

“Studies have proved what we know intuitively: When there are fewer local reporters, there’s more government waste, corruption.  Just as important, it’s harder for neighbors to know each other and for communities to solve their own problems. Voting goes down. Participation goes down.  The information vacuums are filled with misinformation and conspiracy.”

Steve Waldman, president of Report for America, writes:

“How can residents know how to fix their schools if no one is providing them accurate independent information about how their local tax dollars are being spent? How can you address economic development, crime or health care without knowing the facts? Where will people learn accurate information about local COVID vaccinations?”

Waldman continues:

“No journalist loves the idea of the government helping them out. The crisis has become so existential that temporary measures like this are necessary — and this particular provision is shrewdly constructed to avoid First Amendment problems. It’s a tax credit to all those newsrooms that cover local communities; there’s no federal bureaucracy dispensing grants to local newsrooms that the president likes. It’s content neutral and would benefit newspapers, TV stations, websites and public radio.”

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U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who last year documented the journalism crisis in a report highlighting the urgent need for support, drove this home when proposing the tax credits in July:

“The strength of our democracy is based in truth and transparency, and local newsrooms are on the ground in our communities asking the critical questions, countering misinformation, and telling our stories,” the Edmonds Democrat said. “We have to protect these vital parts of our communities.”

This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Subscribe here.