The pandemic walloped Pamplin Media Group, an Oregon newspaper publisher providing local coverage in dozens of Portland-area communities.
Newsroom jobs across its 24 weekly titles fell from 90 to 55 over the last four years, including 25 cut during the pandemic.
Five jobs were added back recently, but “we’re barely keeping our heads above water,” Publisher Mark Garber told me.
The family-owned chain is relatively lucky, though, compared to others that fell into the hands of rapacious investors less committed to public service or that simply couldn’t survive a decade of disruption.
An average of two papers a week are failing in the U.S. Thousands of cities and counties have little to no local coverage informing voters, binding communities and holding officials accountable.
Now Congress has what may be the last chance to stop this hemorrhaging, save thousands of jobs and provide a lifeline to publishers like Pamplin.
A bipartisan proposal for temporary tax credits, to outlets hiring or retaining local journalists, could be included in the budget reconciliation measure the Senate is negotiating.
Primary goals of the spending package were to address issues like climate change and health care costs, though its composition is up in the air after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced he wouldn’t support the climate spending or a tax increase on the wealthy.
Until Manchin’s Thursday curveball, the potentially $1 trillion spending package could fairly easily accommodate a local-news tax credit, amounting to less than 0.2% of the total. With the package shrinking, the opportunity to include the tax credit remains but is much slimmer.
Still, key leaders want to save local news, including U.S. Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, a Portland Democrat and son of a journalist, and Manchin.
Washington’s delegation is especially supportive of the credits, originally co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Yakima Valley Republican. All but Spokane Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers are on board.
Even so, the next few weeks appear to be the last chance for this approach to saving journalism jobs. It would also incentivize publishers to restore newsrooms, the creation of news startups and local investment in saving hometown papers.
If you’re concerned about the journalism crisis and its effect on democracy, consider contacting federal representatives and urging their support.
With candidates campaigning for midterm elections, it’s also a good time for voters (and newspaper editorial pages) to ask what they’ll do to preserve America’s local, independent free press system.
Even if one dislikes a particular outlet or sees bias, there’s no disputing that local news coverage is essential. When it fades, voters are less informed if they vote at all. Research shows civic engagement declines, fewer people run for office and corruption increases.
If your top concerns are climate change, health care costs or inflation, you should also want Congress to help save local news.
“If you don’t have an informed electorate, they’re not going to understand climate, how to take care of your health,” Garber said. “You sort of have to have a baseline of information in the general public to even want to deal with those issues.”
Garber said tax credits “would take us a long way to being able to restore what we’ve lost.”
It will be a big lift just to get the reconciliation package passed.
“We know that Sen. Manchin and Sen. (Majority Leader Chuck) Schumer and others have voiced their desire to support local newspapers, so we believe there is interest in looking for a way to include it in a smaller reconciliation bill, but we do not have assurance,” said Dean Ridings, CEO of the America’s Newspapers trade group.
If not, chances of the credits passing next year are “very, very small,” he said.
“It’s very hard,” Ridings said. “This is our opportunity, and how many hundreds of newspapers will close if we don’t see that happen.”
Another key bill, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, is faring better with a strengthened version expected next week in the House.
The JCPA would allow news outlets to collectively bargain for compensation from tech giants profiting from their content. This is working in Australia to sustain newsroom jobs, especially at smaller and regional outlets that don’t have leverage individually.
Combined with antitrust enforcement to end unfair competition in digital advertising, JCPA would give outlets sustainable revenue and a chance to succeed long-term. But it may take years to implement these fixes, during which many more papers will close. That’s why immediate, short-term support from tax credits is needed.
Every publisher Ridings talks to faces huge challenges. High gas and newsprint prices may be the final straw for those who never really recovered from the last recession.
The crisis was quantified by Northwestern University’s Medill School. It found that more than 360 papers closed during the pandemic, closures continue at a rate of two per week, and the U.S. is on track to lose a third of its remaining newspapers by 2025.
Tax credits would interrupt that decline and buy time for outlets to retool and better compete online. They would provide $25,000 per newsroom job in the first year and $15,000 per job over the next four years.
“We still need some time to transition to a more digital focus, there’s no question,” Ridings said.
Tax credits would not give government influence over what’s covered. Think of them as a new iteration of the postal subsidy created in the 1790s and complementing First Amendment protections. Founding Fathers knew the American experiment won’t survive without a free press and informed voters.
“It’s right there in front of everybody,” Garber said. “This is an industry that’s critical to our democracy. If we don’t get some help, I’m not saying we’re going to go away completely, but something huge is going to be lost.”