Stakeholders in journalism, news, and the general welfare of a fact-based democracy have been beside themselves in recent weeks as a little-known bill that they hoped would slip its way into the broader Build Back Better plan was treated as little more than an expendable remnant.
In the interest of price chopping and compromise, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act has at various times been slashed, trimmed, or cut entirely in the deal-making process, seemingly with little consideration for what it could actually accomplish, or what’s at stake if it’s lost.
The common and simplified perception is it would be a life preserver offered to struggling newspapers across the country. Followers may have also read high-minded arguments that those very newspapers are necessary to preserve democracy as we know it in the United States of America.
None of those takes are wrong, and we wouldn’t suggest otherwise. But let’s face it: anything that might be considered a government bailout of “the media,” is an easy casualty for elected officials in the court of public perception. It’s easy to demean on Facebook and Twitter.
The more nuanced argument is this could be a game-changer for small-town USA and the rural voices that are frequently drowned out by more dominant coastal outlets. Those mom-and-pop storefronts that have dwindled under a tidal wave of Walmarts and Dollar Generals? They would be a primary beneficiary of LJSA. Local fundraisers of all stripes, community banks, development groups, teachers and schools… the list of winners when it comes to this relatively small price tag is as big as America itself.
How? The short answer is newspapers benefit the communities they serve, and it’s no coincidence that strong newspapers reside in strong communities. The intricacies of the bill have been laid out elsewhere, but can be distilled simply in three bullets:
- A tax credit for subscribers
- A tax credit for advertisers
- A tax credit for news organizations themselves for employing journalists
There’s really no downside to any of these benefits no matter your political lean. A better-informed citizenry with a perk to supporting the local newspaper (which are small businesses, too!) is a win. It also offers a solution to small local government operations that are struggling themselves to combat misinformation on social media.
Small businesses with minimal promotional budgets have been dumping what little they have into sponsored ads on Facebook and Google, with predictably diminutive return on investment. You get what you pay for, as they say, and when it comes to generating business in rural America, there’s still no contest on what produces. No amount of geofencing can compete with landing on every single doorstep in town once or twice a week.
The first two provisions would be game changers in their own right, boosting circulation, revenues and page counts. That means more pictures of your kids at prom, on the football field, and in the fall musical. But the economic benefits aren’t confined to the newsrooms themselves — small newspapers employ local community members — and this includes the journalists who can shed light on the bad things that can be the downfall of entire communities.
And let’s not forget: this bill also comes in the wake of a confluence of impacts from public crises to corporate interests that have wrecked havoc on the stability of local news organizations and have seen tens of thousands of journalism positions lost.
Newspapers can benefit from this. But America needs it.
Tony Baranowski, Publisher, Times-Citizen Communications (Iowa Falls, Iowa) and WVU NewStart graduate
Crystal Good, Founder and Publisher, Black By God The West Virginian and WVU NewStart graduate
Miles Layton, longtime rural community journalist and WVU NewStart graduate
Don Smith, Executive Director, West Virginia Press Association
Jim Iovino, Director, WVU NewStart program and Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Innovation