Biden bill would give local media a ‘bullet in the arm’
Washington — President Joe Biden’s $1.85 trillion social spending bill includes a provision that, if it becomes law, would be the first time the federal government has offered targeted support in response to sagging domestic news.
The help will come in the form of a payroll tax credit for companies that hire qualified local journalists. The measure will allow newspapers, digital news outlets, and radio and television stations to claim a tax credit of $25,000 in the first year and $15,000 in the next four years for up to 1,500 journalists.
It’s a response to the growing concern that eliminating newsroom jobs is leaving communities without access to critical information. Concern has grown since a hedge fund with a ruthless reputation for cost-cutting acquired the Tribune, one of the country’s largest newspaper chains, in May. Already, about a quarter of the nation’s newspapers have closed, and half of local journalism jobs have evaporated in the past 15 years, according to research from the University of North Carolina.
This leaves about 1,800 communities without a local newspaper.
But the credit, which will cost $1.67 billion over the next five years, is creating some tension for the industry. Some senior Republicans in Congress have mocked it as charity. Prominent journalists also admit that it is embarrassing to receive financial assistance from the government that they cover independently.
However, given the sense of crisis the industry is facing, many journalists say the risk is worth it.
“This is just a reluctant response to this fear of the collapse of local news and their business models,” said Stephen Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, an organization that puts journalists in local newsrooms, including The Associated Press. Most journalists begin with a healthy skepticism about government involvement and assistance to the press. This is appropriate. “
“But the reason this is happening now is just the severity of the crisis,” he added.
Government support for the media, in direct and indirect ways, is not new. It goes back to the country’s early days when Congress subsidized postal rates for periodicals. Recently, the Pandemic Era Small Business Loan Program gave millions to news organizations.
That ruling was supported by more than a dozen House Republicans, though GOP leader, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, called it a fraud in a recent tweet. “Make no mistake – these Biden and Democrats in Congress are helping to pay the reporters they cover,” he wrote on Twitter.
The proposal’s fate ultimately hinges on how Congress proceeds with the broader legislation, which has only attracted Democrats’ support and has become embroiled by divisions in the House and Senate. Notably, this is one of the few provisions that House and Senate Democrats have actually approved.
Lawmakers will resume debate on the bill when they return to Washington next week.
Although the proposal’s main objective was to save small papers that were hit hard as advertising dollars evaporated at the start of the pandemic, it will help some big companies. If the tax credit becomes law, Janet, one of the nation’s largest remaining newspaper chains, could earn as much as $127.5 million over five years, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
Maribel Perez-Wadsworth, who runs the news division of Janet, which employs more than 4,000 journalists for USA Today and local newspapers such as the Arizona Republic and the Detroit Free Press, called the credit “a good blow in the arm.” It did not specify how the money would be used.
Associated Press spokeswoman Lauren Easton declined to comment on the tax credit.
Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, introduced the credit as part of the legislation last year along with Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
One proponent of the jobs tax credit has been community newspaper chain Week Communications, headquartered in Sierra Vista, Arizona – Kirkpatrick’s congressional district. CEO Francis Wake said revenue has fallen by about half since 2009, with advertising sales falling sharply during the pandemic as local businesses cut advertising. To cut costs, the company consolidated city papers into regional titles, slashed days of print publishing and vacated journalists.
Wake said the tax credit, which will add an additional $2 million to the company in its first year, will help newspapers in the 11-country chain try to transition to a digital-centric model with more paying subscribers, rather than focusing on it. tightly to cut expenses.
“We need to finally make sure that we can do our jobs,” Wake said.
The proposal has a major backer in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has long supported efforts to help the local press. But the case became more personal when her hometown newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, was among those papers obtained by hedge fund Alden Global Capital despite efforts by journalists and community members to steer the newspaper into local ownership.
One of these local advocates, former Maryland County Executive Ted Vinetolis, called Pelosi after the Alden purchase, urging her to bolster credit, which at the time of that phone call was already in Biden’s broader package.
This will be the last time Vinitolis and Pelosi of California will speak before his death in early October, the spokesperson said in an obituary in the newspaper and her office confirmed to the Associated Press.
The ruling set firewalls to try to prevent money from going to partisan websites masquerading as local news or false news operations while casting a wide net around organizations that are legitimate local news outlets, whether they are hedge fund-owned chains, nonprofits, print, digital, or radio. or television.
“This is not the government that decides who gets it and who doesn’t understand it,” said John Schleus, president of NewsGuild, a union that represents journalists, including those working for the Associated Press. “Do you hire local journalists? If that’s the case, here’s a tax credit. It’s really useful because it targets places where we’ve lost a lot of journalists over the last decade and that’s in the local area.”
Erbil reported from New York.
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