A recent hearing on whether Washington state should help sustain local newspapers drew eloquent and impassioned support from citizens.
This should be heard by legislators who will consider whether to extend a preferential business and occupation tax rate for struggling publishers.
The messages are timely as Congress considers a federal tax credit to help publishers retain and hire journalists. That’s now being considered by the House Rules Committee, after being punted forward last week by the Ways & Means Committee.
For Washington state, extending the newspaper tax rate would have minimal cost (about $800,000 over two years) but make a big difference to papers trying to preserve reporting jobs.
The preference is being reviewed by a citizens commission advising the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee, which this fall will recommend whether to extend the break.
Tax credits are one of several ways government can help sustain local journalism while the industry pursues new and sustainable business models.
But rather than repeat my arguments, I’ll use this column to share testimony and comments I received after writing about the preferences earlier this month. Some excerpts:
“It is imperative that our newspapers continue to be a viable part of Washington. The local journalism contribution to our community is invaluable in its
ability to present current, cogent, factual and relevant information for our community,” wrote Mary Schubert.
“Please renew the tax benefit to newspaper publishers that is set to expire in a few years. Access to quality journalism is imperative for having an informed citizenry,” Jo Sullivan wrote. “Newspapers are struggling, and we need them to inform voters, build community, provide information about opportunities for engagement, and is an important means to hold government and institutions responsible.”
“I think it is imperative that you extend the occupation tax preference for local newspapers. With all the misinformation floating around on the internet, local newspapers have never been more important,” wrote Joe Chenier, who identified himself as a lifetime Cowlitz County resident.
Chenier described how his local paper in Longview stopped printing Mondays and shrank Saturday editions, “and if you go into their office the first thing you will notice is there are a lot less staff members,” and its building is for sale.
At least 17 people testified in writing and verbally on Sept. 9. All but one were supportive.
The opponent listed complaints with The Seattle Times and my coverage of the journalism crisis. That’s fine, but there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I also disagree with Jon-Paul Mickle’s contention that tax preferences make newspapers beholden to government; that’s been disproved repeatedly since the U.S. government began subsidizing newspapers in 1792.
Thomas Payne, a Seattle doctor, wrote:
“Newspapers are an essential piece of democracy, without which our ability to make informed decisions is in jeopardy. Just as we support education and our legislature, we need to help newspapers that continue education on
current issues, and help us make wise choices in electing and advising our elected public officials. Please continue and enhance public financial support for newspapers.”
“I value the journalists who report our local, regional, national and worldwide news,” Jackie Bacus of Clinton wrote. “They are vital to keeping citizens informed when we are surrounded by fake news on the internet. I support reducing their taxes in order to keep them financially secure and able to continue this vital service.”
JC Harris, a Des Moines City Council member, noted that a decade ago, Des Moines had two local newspapers and now it has none.
Without them, hardly anyone knows what’s happening or participates in local government, even when big decisions are being made about things like redevelopment of the city’s centerpiece marina, he said.
“Usually nobody attends our public meetings anymore unless I (and I mean I personally) gin up some small demand,” Harris wrote in prepared testimony. “And frankly, governments in general don’t mind that one bit because meetings move a whole lot faster without a lot of pesky residents putting in their two cents.”
This is happening in cities and counties across the country as newspapers fade away. Their demise is short-circuiting democracy, leaving voters in the dark and resulting in a few engaged insiders making all the decisions.
“You don’t realize how exclusionary that is,” Harris told me by phone.
“Even with the best of intentions … the people who know what’s going on or know how to access information do it, and they get what they want usually,” he explained. “The other 32,000 people, two-thirds of which have moved here since 2007, they don’t even know they can volunteer for stuff or how to do it, they don’t know how to get into the stream.”
Des Moines has a local Facebook page, and the city produces a newsletter touting achievements, but they don’t help much, he said.
“If you don’t have a newspaper, it makes it just super easy for a city council to just run the table,” Harris said.
Newspapers are especially needed to say things that are difficult for individuals, even elected officials, to voice, he said.
“There’s no way to speak truth to power here,” Harris said. “God, that sounds highfalutin’ but that’s really the thing without a local newspaper.”
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.