The pandemic has sparked not only national health and economic crises, but also a crisis of democracy. Much of the local free press could catastrophically fail in the next year if it doesn’t get help, and some congressional leaders aren’t even mouthing words of support, let alone backing useful aid.
Eventually, America and the world will turn the corner on the pandemic. When a vaccine becomes widely available, things will transition back to some semblance of what people considered normal a year ago. Shops and restaurants will reopen. People will not have to wear masks in public — wildfire smoke notwithstanding — and the coronavirus will become a nuisance disease, albeit a serious one. Few people will contract it; fewer still will die. The health and economic crises will end after a slow, painful recovery.
The end of the crisis for democracy isn’t so certain, though. The local free press is a cornerstone of successful democracy. Before the coronavirus, it had cracked under the stress of internet behemoths that control modern advertising and co-opt local journalism. Newspapers’ own slow adaptation to the digital era didn’t help. Now the cracks are growing in the pandemic-induced recession, and the entire democratic edifice could crumble.
About 50 newsrooms in the United States have closed during the pandemic. That’s on top of the more than 1,800 newspapers that have closed since 2004. Other newspapers have been gobbled up by hedge funds and chains that inevitably slash local news staffing to improve profitability. News deserts, swaths of America where residents no longer have a reliable local news source, grow at a startling rate.
Readers tend to trust their local news sources over national news media. Studies confirm some of the reasons why. Without a vibrant local free press, communities and democracy suffer.
As local news coverage is cut or disappears, local governments becomes less transparent and residents participate less in civic debate. Government becomes more expensive, too, as tax dollars are wasted. Absent the journalists who serve as government watchdogs, officials can get away with so much more. Accountability withers.
And without coverage of local government, people don’t know what’s going on at city hall and in school board meetings. They lack opportunities to engage on issues that matter to them. Forget about informed voting. CNN and Fox News aren’t about to cover the local water district board elections.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (H.R. 7640) would extend desperately needed lifelines to locally owned news organizations by way of three tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and newspapers. The act is running out of time, though. If Congress doesn’t pass it by the end of the year, it goes into the dumpster. Then the new Congress would have to start over. That would cost precious months that some newspapers and other news organizations cannot afford.
Strong leadership could be the difference. I hate that this breaks along partisan lines, but it does. Support for vibrant, locally owned news sources should transcend partisanship. Politicians who say they support local businesses should support these local businesses.
Democratic leaders at least have endorsed support for the free press. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed for newspapers in the summer coronavirus relief (CARES) package. That doesn’t explain why she hasn’t pushed the Local Journalism Sustainability Act to a floor vote, though.
A nudge from the right could help. If Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy prioritized saving the free press, the act could pass this year. Yet both are depressingly silent about it, even though some of their own caucus members have cosponsored it. In fact, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside, is one of the chief sponsors.
Half of the Washington House delegation aligns with Newhouse publicly. Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Vancouver; Denny Heck, D-Olympia; Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor; Adam Smith, D-Bellevue; and Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish, all have cosponsored the act. Washington is a role model for bipartisan support of the local free press.
McCarthy especially could and should be a vocal champion in the House. There is no companion Senate bill.
McConnell, meanwhile, has cosponsored a bill to waive antitrust rules for newspapers for four years so they can demand better treatment from Google and Facebook. Leave it to McConnell to choose the terrible idea that will lead to further industry contraction over the bill that would actually help.
Congress remains in a partisan stalemate over the next round of coronavirus stimulus, but it doesn’t take a massive stimulus packages to buttress a cornerstone of democracy.