Lest there was any doubt, the pandemic and wildfires have once more demonstrated the importance of newspapers to California residents who rely on them for the latest news, especially in times of disaster.

Even in more-normal times, newspapers are essential to a well-functioning democracy, ensuring government is accountable to the people.

While COVID-19 has exacerbated the advertising declines newspapers have suffered in recent years, publishers have responded by shifting the business model of local news to focus on subscriptions.

Now, however, a new threat looms, and the future of California newspapers hinges on passage of Assembly Bill 323, which would allow newspaper carriers to continue operating as independent contractors until Jan. 1, 2023.

A new law passed last year, AB 5, would classify carriers as employees of a single publication, which would significantly increase the cost of newspaper delivery. A recent analysis estimated the average monthly increase for California newspapers could rise 60% to 85% under the new law. The newspaper industry was granted a one-year reprieve that expires at the end of 2020. AB 323, in recognition of COVID-19’s disruptive blow to the industry’s restructuring efforts, affords the industry an additional extension to get compliant with AB 5.

If AB 323 does not pass by Aug. 31, 2020, newspapers will be forced to severely reduce print delivery, especially in harder-to-reach areas that do not have easy access to local news providers, and other readers likely would face increased subscription costs. Local coverage also could be severely impacted as further cuts would probably be needed.

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While AB 5, the original law, was intended to benefit other independent contractors, it likely would have the opposite effect on newspaper carriers, who play a crucial role in newspaper distribution. Today’s carriers are not youngsters on bicycles. They are adults who often deliver for more than one newspaper company. Many would see their opportunities limited and could lose their jobs altogether.

Without the AB 323 extension, the viability of the hundreds of community and ethnic newspapers that serve California readers also would be threatened. These are the newspapers that traditionally keep underserved communities informed and provide important perspectives on social-justice issues. Today’s environment demands that readers have ready access to a variety of reliable, trustworthy news sources. Newspapers have been closing in recent years at an alarming rate. More than a dozen community newspapers in California have closed since the onset of the pandemic.

AB 323, the Save Local Journalism Act introduced by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, passed the state Senate Appropriations Committee last week with a unanimous vote. AB 323 is expected to advance for a Senate floor vote on Thursday. If it passes, as expected, it will go to the Assembly for consideration. Aug. 31, 2020, is the deadline for final legislative approval of bills this year.

AB 323 will help ensure the public’s access to credible, objective news in communities throughout California. The Legislature should support the hundreds of newspapers in California that play a major role in protecting our residents by passing AB 323.

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) editorial board