By Tracie Powell, Founder & Executive Director, The Pivot Fund
For the first time since 1967, U.S. lawmakers are poised to inject federal dollars into a lagging media ecosystem under the guise of saving local news. There are several pieces of legislation being bandied about in Washington, D.C., but the one getting the most attention at the moment — and perhaps the best chance of passage — is The Local Journalism Sustainability Act. If passed, it would give tax credits to people who buy subscriptions or make donations to local news outlets, to small businesses that advertise with local media, and to news organizations that retain local journalists
To be sure, something has to be done to shore up local journalism, but the legislation may leave out BIPOC-led (Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Color) community news media outlets.
At worse, the legislation ultimately augments inequities in an already inequitable news media ecosystem. At best, “it’s a benefit in name only,” said David Morgan, founder and managing partner of media consulting firm D. Morgan & Partners and president of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association.
“I am struggling to understand why local became the framework in which to look at this issue,” Morgan added. Morgan argues that the legislation bolsters local news outlets owned by hedge funds and local broadcasters but leaves out national community news media with storied histories such as Ebony and Essence magazines.
Local news is the focal point of the legislation because the industry was already in a two-decades-long crisis when the Corona Virus struck in early 2020, which only served to accelerate the industry’s freefall. From 2000 to 2018, weekday newspaper circulation fell from 55.8 million households to an estimated 28.6 million; between 2008 and 2019, newsroom employment fell by 51 percent; and since 2004, more than 1,800 local newspapers have closed across the nation. The demise of local news has left many Americans woefully uninformed and susceptible to dis- and misinformation.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, as currently written, reinforces the current broken media system. But the bill shouldn't be scrapped. Instead, language should be inserted to give bigger tax incentives that specifically benefit local BIPOC news organizations that serve historically marginalized communities.
What the bill does and doesn't do
As currently written, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act could further harm some of the news outlets supporters of the bill want to help.
For example, the bill calls for giving up to $5,000 in credits to businesses that advertise with local news media. Aside from Google and Facebook, we know who businesses spend their precious few advertising dollars with, and it’s not BIPOC news outlets. When it comes to advertising, BIPOC — independent and otherwise — consistently come up short. In fact, after George Floyd’s murder, major brands committed themselves to support Black-owned media. But a recent report by SHE Media found none of that corporate goodwill translated into corporate dollars for media serving Black communities. SHE Media surveyed more than 2,000 independent publishers and influencers and found that less than 15 percent have received increased outreach from advertisers in recent months.
Another concern media watchers have is that the law would give taxpayers up to $250 in credits if they donate or subscribe to local news media. A Knight Foundation analysis correctly notes that $250 may not be enough to encourage people to subscribe or give to news organizations. But there’s more. The bill fails to take into account simple economics that includes the fact that most people now get their news from social media not newspaper subscriptions and the death of the advertising model. The average cost of a newspaper subscription could run as high as $30 a month or $360 a year, if not more. Many poor and working-class people — those who need credible news and information most but rarely get it due to lack of access or lack of coverage — can’t afford the luxury of a newspaper subscription or contribution. Furthermore, when it comes to having to choose between a subscription and a prescription, low and middle-class families will choose the latter each and every time. The information-rich get richer while the information-poor get poorer.
Finally, small independent news organizations rely heavily on freelancers and contract workers to operate. Most have fewer than five employees. Many don’t have, and can’t afford, full-time employees. A $25,000 tax credit benefitting news outlets that employ local journalists would leave out many of these outlets.
No single piece of congressional legislation is perfect, said Steve Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and co-founder and president of Report for America. The former seeks to use taxpayer money to rebuild the local news ecosystem while the latter seeks to place journalists inside local news organizations. (Tracie Powell, the writer of this article, is a Report for America advisory board member).
Waldman said the Local Journalism Sustainability Act can benefit BIPOC news outlets.
“If they can mobilize their own communities then it (tax credit) will enable publishers to go to smaller players and say you have free dollars to spend with us,” Waldman added. “That can be transformative and positive for independent BIPOC news organizations.”
That’s if BIPOC news organizations have the resources, savvy, and capacity to handle that kind of transformation. Waldman said he recognizes that some BIPOC news outlets will require technical assistance in order to take advantage of the tax credits. “The philanthropic world would have to step up and help provide that technical support,” he said.
Is history repeating itself?
After the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created with federal tax dollars in 1967, lawmakers had to return to tweak the legislation because none of the funding was going to Black, Asian, Hispanic, or other filmmakers of color. They created separate bills that funneled money to organizations including Black Public Media, Latino Public Broadcasting, and others. Some groups are still calling attention to the lack of diversity in public media today.
Waldman, who helped craft and garner congressional and industry support for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, says he backs coming up with legislation explicitly for BIPOC news organizations, but the current bill does include local BIPOC news outlets. Opening the bill up to national BIPOC outlets, as Morgan suggests, risks torpedoing the whole effort, Waldman said.
It should be noted that the bill has garnered support from both the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA also referred to as the Black Press) and the National Association of Hispanic Publishers (NAHP).
“We have to do our part to support the industry and our sector,” said NAHP vice president Alvaro Gurdian who is also Vice President of Operations for La Noticia, a family-owned newspaper that serves the Latino community in Charlotte, N.C. “The truth is, the language in this bill is still being amended so what’s in it today may not be in it tomorrow. We’re also conducting studies to determine the impact on small, independent publishers. We don’t know that yet. So this is very much a work in progress.”
– Tracie Powell, Founder & CEO, The Pivot Fund