Given the family history of U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, it’s remarkable that he’s championing ways to save the local press.
When he was growing up in Massachusetts, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team aggressively investigated his father, a legislator and judge who was disbarred after being accused of bribery.
Even so, DeSaulnier said that having local news organizations invest in such journalism “helps make democracy work.”
“People, if they can’t trust their institutions, I’m not sure what’s going to happen to this country,” he told me this week.
DeSaulnier, a San Francisco Bay Area Democrat, this week introduced a bill to help news organizations wanting to become nonprofit entities.
Converting newspapers to operate under nonprofit status is an option that a few communities and publishers have explored to preserve local news coverage. DeSaulnier said legal costs make that prohibitively expensive for smaller outlets so his bill would simplify the process, by amending tax law.
His Saving Local News Act (H.R. 6068) is co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and David Cicilline of Rhode Island. The co-sponsors all hail from states where the largest daily newspapers were sold and their budgets severely cut by remote investors.
“This crisis in American journalism has led to the crises we are seeing today in our democracy and civic life,” Cicilline said in a news release. “We cannot let this trend continue because if it does, we risk permanently compromising the news organizations that are essential to our communities, holding the government and powerful corporations accountable, and sustaining our democracy.”
Simultaneously, DeSaulnier is supporting other measures that are critical to stabilizing and sustaining all local news organizations, whether nonprofit or for-profit.
One would provide tax credits to retain and hire journalists. It’s now part of the Build Back Better spending package in the Senate.
The other is the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would help news outlets secure fair compensation from platforms like Google and Facebook that are profiting from news content.
The logic of this bill resonates with DeSaulnier, who appreciates how licensing content — to make sure creators are paid — has helped the film and music industries.
DeSaulnier ran restaurants in the Bay Area, giving him firsthand experience with music licensing.
A bar needs to make commercial arrangements to play recorded music, which adds value to the establishment. Similarly, Google and Facebook need to pay for news content adding value to their platforms.
This would help rebalance unfair competition that is contributing to the decline of local journalism. Reasonable compensation for news content used online would provide a permanent revenue stream and help secure the future of commercial news organizations.
There is no single solution to the journalism crisis, or business model that works for every news outlet or every community.
Multiple responses are needed to save what’s left of newspapers that provide most local news coverage, even after their newsrooms shrank by 60% since 2008. More than 100 local newsrooms closed during the pandemic, according to the latest tally by the Poynter Institute.
Also needed are legislators who appreciate the urgency of the situation, and what’s at stake if local journalism is allowed to wither away. DeSaulnier’s support for a range of solutions and appreciation of the business needs are especially welcome.
“I think it’s just throwing a thousand seeds out there and hoping it starts to grow,” DeSaulnier said.
Lee pushes back: Iowa-based newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises is seeking to block a takeover bid by Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund known for relentlessly cutting newsroom budgets. Lee’s board of directors approved a “poison pill” plan to prevent Alden from acquiring more than a 10% stake, giving Lee a year to consider options, The Wall Street Journal reports.
This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Visit the new Save the Free Press web site here.