Local newspapers need immediate help or they could go extinct.

In the natural word, there are two common paths to extinction. One is slow decline over decades, centuries or millennia. The world changes, and a species doesn’t keep up. The other is sudden disaster. Giant meteor meets dinosaurs. The paths aren’t mutually exclusive. Unexpected catastrophe can become the final nudge into oblivion for a species softened by long-term decline.

Newspapers are at that crossroad. For the past 20 years, the rise of the internet spurred dwindling advertising revenue and declining subscriber numbers put newspapers on the path toward eventual extinction. Then the pandemic hit with an economic crash, and slow decline became imminent peril.

Local newspapers are fundamental to democracy and civic life, yet no viable alternative is ready to replace them. Online news sites too often are partisan talking-point machines in disguise. Citizen journalists are amateurs who also are driven by agendas and personal passion for particular issues. If the in-depth, community-focused news is to survive, newspapers must evolve. But evolution takes time, and that’s in short supply during the current crisis.

Bipartisan support in Congress therefore is growing for a bill that would create some breathing room for newspapers. Washington U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside, joined Arizona U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat, to introduce the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (H.R.7640). In just a few short weeks since its introduction, the bill has gained more than two dozen bipartisan co-sponsors, including Washington Reps. Denny Heck, Derek Kilmer and Adam Smith.

The bill would create three tax credits meant to incentivize support for local news.

One tax credit would encourage readers to pay for a print or digital subscription. Subscribers would receive credits worth up to $250 per year to offset a portion of their subscription costs. Not only would that bolster newspaper revenue, it also would lead to more people reading their local news. Let’s face it, when there isn’t a Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) going on, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal aren’t going to write much about the Seattle City Council, let alone local schools, the state Legislature and other news important to Washingtonians. That’s the job of local newspapers.

Advertising

The second tax credit would encourage advertising in local newspapers as well as on local radio and television stations. Small- and medium-sized businesses could receive credits worth up to $5,000 in the first year and $2,500 in each of the next four years. That would boost not just the newspapers, but also struggling local businesses. The more they can spread the word about what they offer, the better the chance they can compete.

The third tax credit would go to local newspapers to offset a portion of journalists’ salaries. Think of it as an augmented Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that keeps professional reporters covering important local stories.

All of the credits would expire after a few years. They would be a brief reprieve while newspapers develop bigger strategic changes to make the industry viable. (We’ll look at possible ways to do that in future articles.)

Government aid is not without danger. Whenever government money is involved, there’s risk that it will bring government control. Newhouse’s bill is free from mandates about content and coverage. Nevertheless, in an environment in which “fake news” is a rallying cry and partisan scrutiny of the press is rampant, the public must remain vigilant that the free press remains free.

It can be done. At the founding of the nation, the federal government supported newspapers without interfering in their operation. Back then, it was with low-cost distribution through the U.S. Postal Service. Today it’s tax credits. Tomorrow it could be something else entirely.

This isn’t even the first modern, no-strings intervention by the federal government. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Newspaper Preservation Act that allowed joint operating agreements between competing newspapers in the same market. Longtime readers might recall that The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer operated under such an agreement for years. Again, the federal government acted but did not imperil the free press.

If Congress doesn’t pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act or something similar, many more newspapers could stop publishing or be gobbled up by hedge funds by this time next year.

Fortunately, this is an election year, so lawmakers at least pretend to listen to constituents. Tell them that the local free press matters.