Bills to help save local journalism are finally advancing in Congress and an Oregon senator is key to getting them done.
Fortunately U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Portland Democrat, is a longtime champion of the press and the son of a prominent journalist.
Wyden’s father, Peter, escaped Hitler’s Germany as a teen, battled Nazis and then worked at a Berlin newspaper that helped nurture the country’s democracy after the war. He later worked for regional and national U.S. outlets.
No wonder Wyden deeply supports free speech, the free press and their essential roles in a free country.
“If you hear the importance of it around the dinner table, it tends to rub off,” Wyden told me Thursday.
Wyden now chairs the powerful Finance Committee and co-sponsors the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA).
Introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the bill would provide temporary tax credits to publishers employing or hiring journalists and households subscribing to local news. The goal is to prevent local outlets’ extinction, by giving them time to retool to better compete.
LJSA supporters recently pushed to pass it as part of the $3.5 trillion House budget reconciliation package.
Wyden wouldn’t predict the outcome but seemed optimistic.
“We’re pulling out all the stops,” he said during a call from Portland. “I’m making the case that democracy depends on original reporting and local newspapers are responsible for more than half of that. We’re all in.”
Wyden’s also concerned about government stifling the press. In January he proposed a federal shield law, the Protect Reporters from Excessive State Suppression Act. It would restrict surveillance of reporters, prevent the government from forcing them to reveal sources and files, and shield journalist communications from secret seizures.
Free speech is central to discussions about revising Section 230, a controversial telecommunications bill that Wyden co-authored in 1996. It helps protect online platforms from being sued over most material posted on their sites.
While Section 230 became a lightning rod for critics of tech giants, it also set the stage for innovation and economic growth. Wyden will be involved if any proposed revisions advance.
For now, though, the priority is preserving what’s left of local journalism and stimulating its regeneration.
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q: Will the LJSA pass?
A: I’m like Yogi Berra, I don’t do predictions, especially about the future. I think this is priority business. I was born in Wichita, Kansas, because my dad’s first job was at the Wichita Eagle. I’ve kind of got local journalism in my DNA.
Q: The House version has bipartisan support …
A: I can’t understand why Senate Republicans are staying off because they’ve always said they favor government that’s close to the people, services that’s close to the people. That’s what you guys (local newspapers) are all about — you’re the closest.
Q: Are you hearing from Oregon publishers?
A: I’m hearing from local newspapers all the time. They understand that this is really high stakes stuff. I’ve worked with a lot of them as ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee so they could get (Payback Protection Program) loans, and the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. By the way I want to give a big shout out to your hometown person, Sen. Cantwell.
Q: Northwest leadership on this issue has been remarkable. Do you know why?
A: Yeah, our part of the world makes more sense than the others. We do believe in grassroots involvement, and a lot of these national outlets, when they’re done talking about Kim Kardashian’s hairstyle or some other such thing, there’s just no content from the things that really happen in our community. That’s where you guys fit in.
Q: I hear from people who dislike government helping the press. What do you think?
A: This is not the government putting its hand on certain types of speech. This is about generally empowering local journalism in a big way. By the way there are plenty of local journalism outlets that span across the political spectrum, left, right, center, you name it.
Q: What else can be done?
Certainly we’ll look at the Journalism Competition and Protection Act.
Q: You support it?
A: Yes I’m looking at it. I’m going to take some time to look into it before I start speechifying on it.
Q: This progress is great. Democracies elsewhere are doing things to save local news but the U.S. is behind.
A: I think you just made an argument for why our bill should be in reconciliation. I’ll use it.
Q: Misinformation is a problem but I don’t think Section 230 is the fix. Sustaining local journalism seems like the antidote, so people have good information.
A: Absolutely, three cheers. You want an antidote for some of this misinformation? Provide more opportunities for local outlets that are close to you, that understand what your family’s going through better than some outlet 3,000 miles away. That’s the best answer to misinformation.
Q: I worry about the papers in Oregon.
A: Are you kidding me? It’s really demoralizing to see a lot of our longtime dailies that used to be fat with ads are just so skinny and there’s less and less coverage. Part of this whole effort is to provide an opportunity, a game plan, for turning that around.