After the election, it will become clear that we’re facing a “1967 moment.” The collapse of local news is so severe that Congress will need to pay attention, as it did when it passed the hugely-consequential Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. In fact, Members of Congress have already begun quietly but urgently working on ambitious pieces of legislation to help local news.
But journalists face a horrible dilemma: the crisis in community journalism genuinely threatens democracy. Yet asking for government help seems self-destructive. How can the muckrakers ask for money from the muckmakers?
For the past five months, representatives of organizations representing a wide range of local news publishers and advocates have been meeting to try to solve this puzzle as part of a pop-up coalition. This week, the Rebuild Local News coalition presents the results: an ambitious plan for how the government can help save local news without endangering editorial independence.
The Rebuild Local News coalition consists of a freakishly broad range of stakeholders, including the Institute for Nonprofit News, the National Newspaper Association (which represents weeklies), Local Independent Online News, Black publishers, Hispanic publishers, the American Journalism Project, The Lenfest Institute, community public radio, Solutions Journalism Network, Public Knowledge, PEN/America, The GroundTruth Project, Report for America, Chalkbeat and the Local Media Consortium.
The coalition’s plan would dramatically increase the number of local reporters — probably more than doubling the pool. Yet it would do it without creating a big new government agency empowered to parcel out grants.
Our plan leans into ideas that empower Americans to themselves help local news. For instance, we back a $250 refundable tax credit that Americans can use to buy local news subscriptions or make a donation to a local nonprofit news organization. This idea is built on the bipartisan legislation known as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. The most important change: It must be a refundable tax credit so middle and lower-income Americans can participate. This approach will pump new money into the local news ecosystems without requiring the federal government to subjectively pick winners and losers among news organizations. And it would force local news organizations to make their case to the public. France and Canada have implemented similar ideas.
The coalition’s plan also backs: a strategy to help “replant” hundreds of private newspapers into local nonprofit groups; a tax credit to help small businesses buy local advertising; changes in antitrust policies to discourage damaging newspaper consolidation; tax incentives for hiring journalists; a matching fund to help nonprofit newsrooms; efforts to ensure the coverage of marginalized communities; and other changes. The full proposal can be found here.
That notion of “replanting” newspapers — including hundreds owned by private equity firms — required some elaboration. So the Center for Journalism and Liberty issued my paper spelling out why we need to create a major new nonprofit organization that would facilitate the transfer of hundreds of newspapers into local nonprofit groups.
This idea will work much better if it’s coupled with two public policy changes. The carrot would be a tax incentive — an enhanced charitable deduction to owners that donate a newspaper to a local nonprofit group or a public benefit corporation. Second, we should have some sticks — new antitrust policies that slow or stop media newspaper mergers.
Solving the local news crisis will require much more than enacting these proposals. Foundations and individual donors will need to significantly increase their support, and the commercial sector will need to continue to innovate.
But it’s time that we directly considered a role for the government. Our communities will suffer if we either do nothing or select bad public policies. We need policies that are ambitious but smart.
Steven Waldman is the president of Report for America and coordinator of the Rebuild Local News coalition.