The possibility that Congress might support local journalism got a boost last week when U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, volunteered his leadership on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. His support cements Washington state as ground zero of a growing bipartisan movement to save the free press.
Newhouse is co-sponsoring the bill with Democratic U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona. This bipartisan effort includes three good ideas to help local newspapers endure the devastating effects of a pandemic that arrived as the industry was already vulnerable. Over three decades, the landscape has been adversely impacted by consolidation and disinvestment by nonlocal financial opportunists, and more recently monopolistic control of digital advertising.
First and foremost, the bill would offer a refundable credit to daily and weekly newspapers to cover a portion of journalists’ salaries for five years. That would stop the gutting of local newsrooms immediately. In subsequent years, it would help stabilize and even rebuild newsroom employment under local ownership and stewardship. This provision could be a long-term game changer in saving our essential local newspaper system, and its vital role in our democracy and healthy local communities.
Two other provisions are helpful in the short-term.
One would encourage people to subscribe to their local newspaper — in print and digital — by providing subscribers with a five-year tax credit of up to $250 annually. That could pay up to 80% of the subscription cost in the first year and 50% in the next four years. This would be especially helpful for small dailies and weeklies.
People who read newspapers, either in print or digitally, tend to be regular voters and are more likely to be civically engaged. That’s good for everyone.
Finally, the bill would provide a nonrefundable tax credit to small- to medium-sized businesses that advertise in local newspapers, print or digitally, or on local radio and television stations. Again, there’s a double benefit in that this will help those other struggling businesses reach potential customers.
This bill would create some breathing room while more systemic reforms are put in place to ensure a vibrant, local free press system will continue to serve communities across the country.
What’s exciting isn’t just the content of the bill but that Newhouse is on board with it. His bipartisan leadership and appreciation of the role of his own local newspaper, The Yakima Herald-Republic, is a fine example for his colleagues to follow.
Newhouse has aligned with other legislative heroes for journalism in the Washington delegation who have been working on this issue for some time. Foremost among them are Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Suzan DelBene, both Democrats. In fact, two of the three elements in Newhouse’s bill have been kicking around for a while. They now have a much better chance of success with bipartisan support.