Spiraling unnoticed into and out of the dirt amid partisan skirmishing over President Joe Biden’s shrinking monolithic spending bill was the so-called Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
It might be more appropriately labeled the Newspaper Welfare Act. The idea is to provide five years of tax credits for local news organizations for employing journalists. An earlier incarnation of the proposal also would have given subscribers and advertisers credits.
Something had to give with the gorged Build Back Better bill, originally tagged at $3.5 trillion to cover an array of social spending and climate change initiatives. To put this in perspective, the size of the thing equates to more than three-fourths of the federal budget from 2019, the last year before the coronavirus pandemic.
Thus, some people, apostates to the left, asked what otherwise might seem a reasonable question, namely, where in hell is all the money for this? This resonated to the point that a mad scramble ensued to begin stripping Build Back Better to the studs. Well, not quite. It’s still a massive $1.85 trillion.
That was enough to imperil free community college, paid family and medical leave, prescription drug discounts and those damn journalism tax credits. At this writing, just when the credits were out of the bill, they’ve been pulled back in.
As it has been anathema to the left to wonder aloud over spending excesses in Build Back Better so it has been in the executive halls of the local news business to question the value of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.
I won’t pretend to oppose the idea on the grounds of anything resembling principle. Had it passed, our organization would have taken advantage, and why not? If corporate fat cats can use tax loopholes to avoid paying the government, why wouldn’t we take credits to help cover payroll?
Could it be another in a world of slippery slopes? Possibly. Getting help from the government raises the question of whether it would affect our role as a government watchdog. But newspapers long have taken government money, including, as Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism points out, postal subsidies, public notice advertising and, last year, payroll protection loans.
Whatever the case, I won’t feign opposition to the Newspaper Welfare Act in any sense if it passes, now or later. Damn right we would take the credits. You would, too, in our shoes.
Further, I would lobby for it, if I believed it had a chance of accomplishing what its actual name implies. Think whatever one side might, local journalism is critical to a free society. Before the Fake News crowd gets its knives completely sharpened — I know the blades are already glistening — consider the distinction between local and national news. The latter is a sea of dung into which everyone wades without noticing how much it stinks.
National media, most specifically cable broadcast news, seek to play Americans for fools, and many Americans play the part particularly well. Major national TV caters to this side or that one, offering up almost no original reporting. Put a joker from the left on one side and a joker from the right on the other and a blow-dried joker as an anchor in the ostensible middle and, voila, here come the viewers. These TV suits couldn’t find their hind quarters, let alone a story, with a GPS. The world would be quieter but not be less informed without them.
Local journalists tell you what’s going on where you live, in your communities and state. If they vanished, you’d be left with the cheap, plastic brand of reality television that is cable news and you’d know next to nothing about what your local or state government is doing or what’s really happening in local schools, business or entertainment and the arts.
Nothing less than democracy itself depends on this. For those carrying constitutions in their pockets, I know we are not a democracy but a representative republic. But democracy is a central part of our construction, and the necessity of a free press was written into our founding documents.
If all that remains of journalism is the version of it provided by cable news and a few national news organizations, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, democracy’s days here are numbered.
My beef with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act has nothing to do with its stated aim. It has to do with its unintended effect, which is to give local news publishers the feeling that, through it, they might accomplish that stated aim. Any sense of security derived from it is profoundly false. It equates to puttying the gaping hole in the Titanic’s bow and expecting to sail her home.
Our business can be saved only by us going on the offensive against those who’ve rigged the digital ad game against us and by us cultivating a new model to replace the shattered one by which we operate now. The day looms when the printed pages that some of you are reading now will disappear. We will either go with them, or our industry finally will be transformed to fully electronic delivery and we will be capable of sustaining ourselves by paid readership while competing on a leveled digital advertising field that allows us to expand our business.
Everything else is us whistling past our own graveyard. Our fate is still our own, but only to the extent that we seize it and act. If we do not soon, that fate will be decided without us and against us. Neither we nor the country will be better for it.