Hundreds of wobbling local news organizations and thousands of local reporters may continue informing their communities, now that a critical measure to save local journalism is advancing in Congress.
The deal is not done yet, however. Senate approval of local journalism tax credits is still needed to save local news organizations, especially in rural areas where hundreds are expected to fail without the temporary supports.
A House vote on the Build Back Better Act, including tax credits for local news outlets, is expected before Thanksgiving followed potentially by a Senate vote in December.
Right after the House advanced the package last week, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell took to the Senate floor on Nov. 4 to speak on behalf of the journalism tax credits, which she co-sponsored through the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
“As one friend of mine said, local news is like hanging a lantern on a problem so that the light shines through,” she said, adding that the tax credits are needed to keep a diversity of news sources working while problems underlying the journalism crisis, including anticompetitive online business practices, are addressed.
The Edmonds Democrat said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer played a key role. “From the beginning, he understood … about it being a key part of our democracy, and we wouldn’t be at the precipice of getting support for local journalism without his support,” she said.
Meanwhile, McClatchy, the Sacramento-based newspaper chain that owns newspapers in Tacoma, Olympia, Bellingham and Tri-Cities, and a minority stake in The Seattle Times, decided to sever its association with a nonprofit placing early-career reporters at local news outlets.
As first reported by Columbia Journalism Review, McClatchy is declining to renew its partnership with Report for America.
The reason: McClatchy, which was acquired by New Jersey hedge fund Chatham Asset Management in 2020, didn’t like Report for America President Steve Waldman saying that hedge funds are wrecking local news.
McClatchy currently has 31 Report for America staffers, including three in Tacoma, Olympia and Tri-Cities.
A source told me those reporters will be able to complete their contracts, which run two to three years, but McClatchy isn’t signing up for the next cohort of placements.
A McClatchy spokesperson did not respond to my requests for comment.
That’s too bad because it should explain whether the relationship was severed because of petulance or good business reasons. Nonprofits play an increasingly large role in sustaining local news coverage, and this spat raises questions about the resilience of such relationships.
I’d also like to know whether McClatchy is going to reinvest in its hollowed out newsrooms or milk them dry like other hedge funds in the news business. After Chatham acquired Canada’s largest newspaper chain in 2016, it cut more than 1,600 employees and shut down dozens of papers.
A statement provided to CJR suggested McClatchy may step up and fully cover the reporting positions instead of relying on Report for America and local donors to cover half or more of their salaries.
“Part of the rationale behind our partnership with RFA was extending coverage,” Kristin Roberts, McClatchy’s senior vice president of news, told the magazine. “We have shown that we can and should, and these beats are now shifting into the core.”
Perhaps the separation isn’t bad news, aside from appearing chippy.
There are more requests for Report for America staffers than the nonprofit can provide each year. This should make more available at news organizations that want them and can’t afford to fully fund the beats.
One veteran of the program, Abbie Shull, is skeptical that this marks a turnaround.
Shull was a Report for America temp that The News Tribune in Tacoma used to cover Pierce County’s largest employer, the military, until she recently left for a job at Business Insider.
Shull said newsrooms are so thin, editors had little time to support the Report for America reporters. The reporters also are pressed into covering other things because the papers are so short-staffed, “so you’re not really investing in a full-time reporter covering those beats.”
If McClatchy is increasing its newsroom investment to fully cover the 31 beats, that’s good. But it’s only the start of what’s needed.