Washington’s congressional delegation continues to lead on saving the local free press. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell released a report titled “Local Journalism: America’s Most Trusted News Sources Threatened.”
Every American adult interested in a robust civic society should read it. Most won’t, not least because it runs to 66 pages, including more than 100 endnotes. So here’s the TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) summary.
America’s local newspapers are in dire straits. If you’re a regular reader of this column or subscriber to our weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter, you already knew that. Cantwell’s report builds momentum to do something about it.
Over the past couple of decades, local newspaper revenue is down 70%. That’s caused nearly 2,000 newspapers to close.
Even where newspapers cling to life, lost advertising revenue has meant huge cuts to journalism. From 2005 to 2020, newspapers cut 60% of their newsroom staff nationwide. In the Pacific Northwest, journalism fared even worse. Washington and Oregon both shed two-thirds of their newsroom workers. In 2005, 1,587 reporters, photographers and editors worked in Washington newsrooms. Today, about 500 do.
Few of those laid-off reporters found jobs reporting at websites. The report cites Pew Research Center data that shows the precipitous decline in newspaper newsroom employment was offset by only a slight uptick at online news producers.
The results are catastrophic for communities. With fewer reporters, news organizations are not able to cover local government, public affairs and other newsworthy events like they used to.
“America’s local newsrooms now have thousands fewer watchdogs exposing crime, corruption and keeping elected officials accountable to their constituents,” the report notes. “Small businesses have less information on local conditions and fewer opportunities to reach customers in their community. Communities are losing access to trusted, nonpartisan information that keeps our civil institutions cohesive and resilient.”
Things are only getting worse during the pandemic. The journalism-focused Poynter Institute has tracked newsroom layoffs and closures since COVID-19 took off in the United States. So far more than 60 newspapers have closed.
Also this year, newspapers nationwide have laid off 7,000 more newsroom employees. That leaves only 30,000 still working. The math isn’t hard. With that sort of attrition, newspapers have about four years left. If the economy rebounds, maybe newspapers last a few years longer.
The systemic challenges confronting the local free press aren’t going away. Loss of readers to internet news and “news” sites won’t reverse overnight. Nor will the monopolistic policies of Facebook and Google that have siphoned advertising revenue from local news organizations end quickly.
“These trillion-dollar companies scrape local news content and data for their own sites and leverage their market dominance to force local news to accept little to no compensation for their intellectual property,” the report notes.
Cantwell’s report recommends that Congress intervene to save the local free press. It offers three ideas.
First, pass emergency COVID-19 financial relief. The first round of federal stimulus and relief included help for news publishers. The next round, if it ever passes, must include more.
“If Americans are to continue receiving the benefits of local journalism — transparency, fact-checking, professional editing, and high-quality and timely reporting that promotes vibrant, cohesive, and diverse communities — local news needs help to survive the current economic storm,” the report states.
Second, empower local news outlets to secure fair compensation from news aggregators. Cantwell’s report supports a temporary antitrust exemption to allow newspapers to negotiate from a stronger position. That’s not a good idea, though the report tempers some of the bad by suggesting the exemption include strong safeguards for smaller publishers lest they be railroaded into a deal that benefits hedge funds and big news chains.
Third, and most important for the long-term viability of the local free press, Congress needs to intervene against the big-tech monopolies that are killing the news. The Department of Justice is already getting to work on this one, but lawmakers can do more.
If those ideas sound familiar, they should. People have been kicking them around for months and years. Cantwell’s next step is the one that matters. Will she leave this report to gather dust on a shelf or will she use it to push Congress to act after the election?