Local journalism needs help now

By Jun Nucum
SAN FRANCISCO — The advancement in technology would naturally be welcomed by many as it has many promises to make life better and easier that many embraces technological developments, inventions and innovations as if they are the much-yearned manna from heaven.

For many years, especially in the last decades, a lot of these most of which borne out of the advancement in computer-generated objects — microwave ovens, automobiles, and every day-used gadgets like smart televisions, cell phones, laptops, tablets among others sprout in almost everywhere affecting the lives of people worldwide.

The additional benefits of the internet caused even more of these exhilaration, elation and thrill as much more growth, expansions, progress and advancement came about that even more encouraged inventors and developers to hone further their crafts.

In the midst of all these excitement and appreciation of these developments, however, were drawbacks that are lost in the midst of these phenomenal successes.

One such drawback is the very existence of newspaper outlets that saw devastating layoffs at many other news outlets even at iconic publications like the Washington Post, LA Times, Time Magazine, Business Insider, lately GQ and Sports Illustrated and broadcast news giants CBS and NBC that along with growing news deserts, are fueling growing uncertainty about the future of local journalism — even about the future of news itself.

According to the Pew Research Center, the amount of advertising to local newspapers declined 82% – a $40 billion drop – since 2000 and a national briefing Rescuing Local Journalism — What’s at Stake for Ethnic Media? was conducted by the Ethnic Media Services to explore current initiatives to rescue local journalism through various forms of taxpayer support and other public policies. Several ethnic news media publishers shared their views and inquire about how and whether these plans advance equity for the ethnic media sector which is indispensable to the ecosystem for reaching traditionally underserved audiences but is often excluded from discussions about local journalism.

The speakers at the briefing included Steven Waldman, Founder and President of Rebuild Local News and Co-Founder and former President of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms across the U.S., Ryan Adam, Vice President of Government and Public Relations for the Toronto Star who was actively involved in gaining enactment of Canada’s Online News Act (Bill C-18), a bargaining code which helps secure tech company compensation to publishers for their content, Brittney Barsotti, General Counsel, California Newspaper Publishers Association, who tracks media legislation, including California AB 886 (dubbed California Journalism Preservation Act) to support local journalism and other ethnic media publishers representing AAPI, Black and Latino news media.

Waldman confirmed that the crisis in local news is accelerating nationwide mentioning that  an annual State of Local News report from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism found that the loss of local newspapers accelerated to two and a half per week in 2023, leaving over 200 counties as “news deserts” and over half of U.S. counties with limited access to reliable local news, with another 228 counties at “high risk” of losing local news.

“Although there is a consensus that government support should not be the primary support for news as this can potentially undermine independence of the press, we’re seeing that some policies are clearly needed,” admitted Waldman as he explains proposed tax credits designed to support local journalism.

One such policy is government-backed advertising more heavily invested in local journalism.

“In New York City, for example, the City Council passed a CUNY proposal that half the advertising money the city spent would benefit community media, which led to a $9.9 million shift of funds for the sector — nearly 84% of the city’s total print and ad budget,” informed Waldman adding that other such policies include tax credit proposals. “On the state level, this involves tax credit for small businesses that advertise in local news. Federally, the Community News and Small Business Support Act (HR-4756), which is currently in Congress, is an employment tax credit of up to $25,000 per head for editorial staff.

Waldman cited one major proposal is a bargaining code requiring tech platforms like social media/companies to compensate news organizations for use of content: in Canada this takes the form of the Online News Act (C-18) passed in 2022, and in Australia, the News Media Bargaining Code passed in 2021.

Adam, of Canada’s largest newspaper Toronto Star rued that with the LA Times and Washington Post layoffs, “having a benevolent rich owner isn’t enough. And that’s because the business model for news is broken on the advertising side.”

“80% of our own revenue used to come from ads and 20% from subscriptions but in the last 15 years, with the ability of Google and Meta to use our content to drive advertising, a great deal of that 80% has gone,” continued Adam.

“Now, three years into the Australian bill, tech platforms are holding up their end of some lucrative content deals. Revenue bleeding has stopped, and people are starting to think of journalism as a growing industry,” enlightens Adam, who advocated for the passage of the Canadian bill modeled upon its Australian predecessor that has been successful.

In justifying his advocacy, Adam added “a lack of any government-independent news is not built to last, because governments can change.”

“What is built to last is some of the biggest companies in the world recognizing the value of the content they’re using, through compensating journalists with revenue from ads run by sharing that news. I think it’s the best-case scenario.”

For her part, Barsotti, gave an overview of AB-886, the California Journalism Preservation Act. Saying that despite criticisms that tech compensation will simply benefit hedge funds or large national news organizations,

“We have around 450 publications throughout California and over 90% are small businesses… the money they’d get is based on how much content is displayed; it’s not a link tax.” Barsotti expounded. “Regardless, she continued, due to the Dormant Commerce Clause and the First Amendment, we can’t do content-based deals, e.g. for ethnic media specifically. However, tweaks to the bill like headcount-based money distribution and guaranteed minimums for small publishers could mitigate these concerns.

“Some advocate for philanthropy, but we’d need up to $1.75 billion to adequately supply local news nationwide,” Barsotti added. “It won’t solve the crisis, because the crisis is based on major platforms dominating ad space.”