By Steve Waldman, guest columnist.
The Senate is now deciding the fate of local news.
As part of the Build Back Better, the Senate is in the next few days considering an important proposal: providing a payroll tax credit to local news organizations to retain or hire local journalists.
Why? Local news is in a deep crisis. The internet has fundamentally broken the business model of local newspapers. The number of reporters has dropped by more than half since 2000.
There are at least 1,800 total “news deserts” — no local newspapers at all — and thousands more have “ghost newspapers” that have been so gutted that they barely cover the community.
This is having catastrophic consequences. In communities of color, especially, misinformation about COVID has cost lives. The only way to combat misinformation is with trusted, accurate information.
Studies have shown that when local news declines, communities have more corruption, more waste, lower voting and even lower bond ratings. It cripples the community’s ability to solve their own problems.
It also helps foster division and polarization. The vacuums that have been created have been increasingly filled by misinformation, national cable news and fake local news sites.
Without government help, we can expect hundreds more newspapers to close in the next year and probably about 500 in the next five years.
This is a thoroughly nonpartisan, bipartisan issue. In fact, the communities harmed are disproportionately Republican.
No journalist loves the idea of the government helping out. The crisis has become so existential that temporary measures like this are necessary — and this particular provision is shrewdly constructed to avoid First Amendment problems. It’s a tax credit to all those that cover communities; there’s no federal bureaucracy dispensing grants to local newsrooms that the President likes. It’s content neutral and would benefit newspapers, TV stations, websites and public radio — for their community coverage.
The cost is miniscule compared to the rest of this bill — less than 0.1% of the total. But it’s the only thing in the bill that would help save democracy.
Please urge Senator Schumer and your state’s Senator to support this nonpartisan provision to help save local news.
Steve Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and president of Report for America.