The survival of independent regional newspapers shows hope for a revival of American local journalism. Thanks to a new federal law, these bastions of the free press — including The Seattle Times — can build toward long-term stability despite financial burdens left from an earlier era.
Part of the budget deal signed Dec. 20, the Save the Community Newspaper Act will allow privately held community newspapers to stretch out payments owed to pension plans that have been frozen through years of industry trouble.
Without the urgently needed relief, these newspaper companies would face immense obligations coming due in 2021 under federal pension contribution laws. This long-sought relief reduces the annual bill to a manageable level while preserving pensioners’ rights to every penny they are due.
For The Times, along with sister papers in Yakima and Walla Walla, the restructuring reduces the annual bill by more than $10 million by extending payments over time. That longer runway means the difference between an imminent bankruptcy threat and a fair shot at long-term stability.
“This is a ‘glory, glory, hallelujah’ moment for the newspaper industry, for localism and for family ownership,” Times publisher Frank Blethen said.
This lifeline will help at least 17 — perhaps many more — independent regional newspapers across the country, from Seattle to Albuquerque to Tampa to Bangor, Maine. In these markets, print and online news readers benefit from coverage decisions made by institutions rooted in the communities they serve.
Other cities across the nation have watched helplessly as their newspapers declined despite wide local audiences. Hedge funds and debt-encumbered newspaper chains cut staff and sold assets to wring out money. The simultaneous shift of advertising revenues to large internet companies accelerated these troubles. Business decisions sank the journalism, and communities lost out.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review’s Layoff Tracker website, some 3,160 newsroom jobs disappeared in 2019, mostly at newspapers. The longer trend is even more stark. The Pew Research Center found that from 2008 to 2018, the number of newspaper newsroom workers dropped from 71,000 to 38,000 — a 47% decline in reporters, photographers, editors and design teams. That means cities and towns across America now lack the robust information about city council meetings, state legislatures and local culture their newspapers once provided.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers who fought for this new law recognize what the free press means for American democracy. U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Washington state Democrats, and Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Washington’s U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene and Adam Smith, both Democrats, and Republicans Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and former Rep. Dave Reichert deserve special praise for their work to support this cause.
Thanks to their commitment and that of others, The Times now has an opportunity to sustain Seattle’s independent journalism tradition.
“The business model is under a lot of stress,” Blethen said, “but it still works.”
The Save the Community Newspaper Act preserves a special asset for the nation’s communities and governance. Federal recognition of the unique value of America’s free press made this victory possible. Governments and the public should build upon this foundation with resounding support for the mission to help local journalism thrive.