Maybe The Horse Isn’t Dead Yet…

My friend Morton Marcus–an Indiana columnist who was for many years the Director of   the Indiana Business Research Center–used a recent column to weigh in on the plight of local journalism. As he noted, one of the major causes of the decline of local news outlets has been the displacement of private financing “from independent, local entrepreneurs to large corporate chains that “trimmed” costs.”

“Trimmed ” is a very nice word for the ferocious and destructive cost-cutting that has virtually killed local news– the very product those outlets were selling.

As Morton noted (I got this in an email, so no link–sorry)

Corporations behave like individuals; they seek to avoid the risks of change and the challenges of diversity. Therefore, editors who accept the risk of divergent views are best removed. Reporters who impede corporate strategy are best discharged. Radio and TV stations are bought and stripped of their distinctive local content.
Given lower costs of production, newspaper and magazine offices, TV and radio stations, housing older equipment, with their associated personnel, become unnecessary drags on profits. A conglomerate can morph an enterprise from news and reasoned commentary into a conveyor of entertainment and sensationalism. “Efficiency” of the corporation often out-weighs the quality and nature of the product.

Lest you think Morton’s column was merely another flogging of that “dead horse” along the lines of my post yesterday, you will be happy to learn that he ended with some very good news: the introduction of companion measures in both the House and Senate titled “The Local Journalism Sustainability Act.”

The bill is intended to provide a “pathway to financial viability” for local news produced by newspapers–including all-digital ones–plus television and radio. The mechanism through which this is to be achieved is a combination of three tax credits: a credit aimed at incentivizing subscribers; a credit to provide news outlets an increased ability to hire and retain journalists; and a credit intended to encourage small businesses to advertise in these local news outlets.

The individual credit for subscribers is described as a five-year credit of up to $250 annually, available to individuals who either subscribe to a local newspaper or donate to a nonprofit news organization. It would cover 80% of those costs the first year, and 50% in four subsequent years.

The effort is billed as bipartisan, which–if accurate–should increase its chances of passage.

Will these tax credits work to stem the bleeding? Who knows? I have my concerns about the use of tax incentives, which tend to add to the complexity of America’s tax system, and where “goodies” intended to reward donors can be shielded from the light of day. On the other hand, there are–as I have recently noted–examples of the successful use of such incentives to prompt socially beneficial behaviors.

Perhaps the most significant positive aspect of this effort is that it signals recognition of the problem. If this particular measure doesn’t pass–or fails to stem or reverse the decline of local news–that recognition is a sign that other interventions are likely to be tried.

The importance of that–the importance of agreement over the existence of a problem–is hard to overstate.

There really is no problem we humans cannot address more or less successfully, once there is broad agreement on the existence and nature of a problem.We see this most vividly as we confront climate change and regret the years wasted–the years during which we might have avoided what is now unavoidable–because too many people refused to admit the existence and nature of the threat. We are seeing it in the insistence by right-wingers who refuse to get vaccinated that COVID is a “hoax.”

We can’t solve problems we refuse to see.

What is most heartening about the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is its recognition of the importance of credible, comprehensive local news sources, and the determination to keep that horse alive.


  1. Maybe before they look at the tax credits, they should look at who owns the newspapers first. Hedge funds buy up papers, milking them, selling off their assets, then dropping the dead weight. The government has to advertise in the local newspaper, so there are recurrent income streams.

    I’m not sure tax credits are the way to go after this problem since most people file EZ or short forms, so a complex tax credit for subscriptions might not work. Too complicated.

    Also, I’m not too interested in tossing gravy to hedge fund managers. I’d rather see the pool of money go to independent companies/journalists who don’t have to bow down to editors who report to the regional manager, etc.

    I’m seeing a lot of government meetings being captured live on Facebook and stored for several weeks. There are AI experiments for local news as well.

    Bottom line, I’m not too interested in saving the old model of local news owned by hedge funds by giving them a load of tax credits. The news media is dying for a reason – it gave up all its power to be an entertainment medium. So decentralize ownership and become the 4th estate again.

    All the silence during Julian Assange’s hearing yesterday by global media sources tells me I need to know why the Fourth Estate is failing. They aren’t doing journalism – just entertainment.

  2. So, other than having a few letters to the editor published in the local papers my only journalistic accomplishment was that when I was 12 or 13 years old I had a paper delivery route. Every morning by 6:00AM I would fold all my papers, stow them in a big bag and mount them on the front handlebars of my bike and ride down the sidewalk tossing papers onto porches. It required deft coordination and skill to avoid obstacles in the way and also land the paper on the porch or the sidewalk in front – not in the grass and never, ever hitting the aluminum storm door.

    And then one day it happened. The perfect toss. I was making my way down the sidewalk and lobbed a copy of the Friday edition, which were thinner, over my head to the left with my right arm, and STUCK IT square into the opening of an empty milk bottle!! The tragedy was that I had no witnesses or anyone with whom to celebrate this rare accomplishment.

    Anyway, I’ve been closely watching the progress of various organizations in their attempts to support local non-profit news organizations and have even discussed the matter locally with a couple of retired journalists. See more about this at:

  3. Professor Suess Kennedy-I thought that I was the only person who reads Professor Morton Marcus’s thoughts!

  4. Giant corporation have become the bane of American society. They must be broken up. They are stifling social development and innovation. We need more local business not just news outlets but everything from grocers to lumber yards. Our economy must be restructured to emphasize quality over quantity, uniqueness of interchangeability. The only reason McDonald’s is on damn near every street corner in America is economy of scale which benefits the owner’s bottom line but doesn’t do much of anything for the customer. Our country has lost much because of mass marketing.

  5. It is heartening to know that some of our “leaders” are thinking about how we get our news. Maybe that’s the inevitable result of the Big Lie.

  6. The government giveth and the government can take away.

    So once these tax credits are in place, and the news media comes to depend on them, what is to stop aggrieved elected officials from using them as a bargaining chip to hone the news media into something of a propaganda machine to their liking?

  7. If anything put a bullet into one of the “Horses” it was the Telecommunications of 1996 under the Clinton Regime.

    Per Wiki: The 1996 Act’s stated objective was to open up markets to competition by removing regulatory barriers to entry: The conference report refers to the bill “to provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition”.

    This competition never really happened except for the competition among the big fish to buy the smaller ones.

    At least as far as print journalism from another article:

    Advertising revenue in print journalism or traditional newspapers has been steadily falling. It was $45 billion in 2003 and it had dropped to $19 billion by 2012.

    This has severely impacted employment in the field. Even with the expansion of on-line newspapers, full-time employees in U.S. newspaper industry dropped to a low of 40,000 in 2012.

    The profession of news gathering has now largely shifted to television and the Internet, and despite print journalism’s exciting and influential history, it is no longer a field that offers a bright employment future.

    In the dim distant past we once had the idea that mergers and conglomeration that led to less competition and control in the hands of a few was not good. We had various anti-trust laws to prevent monopolies and oligopolies. It seems the idea of anti-trust has went the way of the steam engine locomotive.

    Knowing the way our system works, I can see theses hand-outs by the government going to the Crony-Capitalists embedded in the system.

  8. NPR seems to be the only reliable access to “correct” news. Factual news is extremely important to decision making.

  9. Theresa @ 9:11 am , I agree with you.

    “The government giveth and the government can take away.

    So once these tax credits are in place, and the news media comes to depend on them, what is to stop aggrieved elected officials from using them as a bargaining chip to hone the news media into something of a propaganda machine to their liking?”

  10. When I was actively learning the little economics that I was taught in school, the world was apparently a simpler place. What I took away was pretty simple. Most countries in the world had mixed economies. The mixture was determined by who owned the means of production of particular goods and services, either all of us or some of us. There was a functional understanding of how to make that choice for each product. Government owned the mean for what’s now understood as infrastructure, those goods and services that most or all families and individuals and institutions required in common. Subsets of all of us, down to individuals, owned the means otherwise and were sorted out by their ability to compete with other corporations in their markets.

    I don’t think that any of that has changed but has been the subject of copious covert advertising by those corporate owners whose wealth is a function of their political influence (which can be bought in an underground market).

    Information about what is going on globally, nationally and locally is best seen as the infrastructure required by democracy to support civic literacy but there are also worries about our fourth estate being controlled by government. We used to be able to rely on the profession of journalism being in our interest, not anyone else’s. Now we have to find a legal way to navigate back to those times through regulation.

    Is that possible and what can be done to help craft effective legislation to that end?

  11. Government subsidizing journalism is a thoroughly horrible idea. Inevitably with that money will come control. Do we really want that?

    As a side note, I hate how the term “bipartisanship” is being misused. Bipartisanship technically means you have a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats supporting a bill. If 220 Republicans oppose a Democrats’ bill, the fact one courageous GOP representative supports it, the bill is not “bipartisan.” Unfortunately, “bipartisan” is losing its meaning as it is constantly being misused to include ANY level of support from both parties.

  12. It is also sad to see respected sources like The New York Times and PBS Evening News become, very subtlely, clearly leaning leftward in their “straight news reporting”. This is not so much in injecting opinions into news, but more about what/who gets coverage/pictures, etc..

    Paul – we don’t need “bi-partisanship” because we don’t need “partisanship” in any form. Let’s go Post-partisan and pass laws on the basis of what is needed to solve our country’s problems via our basic democratic principles and values – country over Party and/or Parties.

  13. Lester, good point. Post-partisan. I clearly remember pre-partisan and it worked well for the owners of government, we the people, but riled special interests who armed themselves with covert modern brand advertising to create partisanship.

    We fell hook, line, and sinker for at at the peril of democracy.

  14. Lester Levine, I think the seemingly leftward lean from these sources is that most things with a rightward lean are standing out at a 90 degree angle into the tin foil hat zone of unsubstantiated and fictional. From that point of view I am sure everything else looks like it is leaning left.

    There is also the danger of reputable media even repeating the fiction gives it some credibility where they can be quoted out of context and in this day and age, few people will bother to check the source.

  15. If PBS has gone to the left, it is most likely because of what the GOP has become under Trump. I suspect NPR has gone a bit left as well. Still PBS interviews conservative reps and Senators as well as progressives.

    I don’t know what happened to the anti-trust laws of this country. If they were in place Amazon, Wal-Mart etc, would have to be broken up which in turn would hopefully create competition. I believe the same would hold for newspapers.

    Wha’t the phrase? “Think globally and act locally.” It’s hard to know how best to act locally without a local newspaper. It’s hard to know how to best network with others who have similar concerns, interests, hobbies etc. within the local community. It’s too bad we can’t use anti-trust laws not only against social media giants but also with newspaper giants.

  16. Robin – it isn’t “who” PBS interviews, it is the subjects they cover – disproportionately inequality, plight of immigrants, etc. And Yamiche Alcindor slips in “commentary” about racial issues when she reports factual news.

  17. The small weekly newspaper in eastern Indiana where I now work (after 40 years working in newsrooms) has experienced nearly 70 percent growth in paid subscribers in the past year by reporting local news as factually and honestly as possible. We have the good fortune to have local independent ownership.

  18. I find Mr. Hansen’s comments encouraging. That they went from 10 subscribers to 17 is amazing in this journalistic environment, especially if indeed based purely upon factually reported local news. Independent ownership is what they used to call the Pulliam klan’s kapers. But despite all that krew did for Indiana under the banner of Joe “status” Crow, at least they got the middle initials of the victims and perpetrators correct, and the addresses were usually accurate.

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