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.