A 10-point plan for the government to shore up local newspapers
By Frank Blethen, Seattle Times publisher
Editor and Publisher
SHOPTALK / COMMENTARY
Our democracy and its cornerstone — the trusted local independent newspaper — are in crisis. There is no question that the revival of local, independent newspaper stewardship is critical to shoring up the wobbly legs of our democracy. Today I will share, in priority of positive impact, the actions which can and, in most cases, must be taken by the federal government before it is too late. As you read the list, keep in mind that localism of ownership is critical and that newspapers should never again become controlled by absent investors who do not care about our communities. Such investors will continue to milk every cent out of local newspapers until they become ghost papers in news deserts, with scant coverage and dire consequences for the health of towns, cities, counties and the nation. After two decades of unchecked media consolidation and growing tech dominance, more than a fifth of Americans now live in places with little to no local news coverage. That includes 70 million people living in counties with no local newspaper at all, according to researchers at Northwestern University’s Medill School. The current pace of two newspapers failing per week, on average, will increase without federal intervention, swift leadership and new ideas. Here is my list of priorities for saving local, independent newspapers and democracy: 1. Pass the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), also referred to as the Safe Harbor Act. This bipartisan proposal would enable newspapers to collectively bargain with dominant tech companies and get paid for Big Tech’s use of newspaper content. This approach is proven to stabilize news outlets and restore newsroom jobs. 2. Pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA). This would have an immediate, positive impact and save jobs. It would provide tax credits based on how many journalists are employed at a news outlet. LJSA is an elegant, bipartisan solution that rewards investments in journalism and will save hundreds of local newspapers in the coming year. 3. Develop a permanent newsroom headcount subsidy within five years. (The LJSA would expire after five years.) 4. Remove local, family newspaper stewardship assets from the federal death tax. Family-owned newspapers are capital-intensive businesses that can be forced to sell out due to this unnecessary tax burden. 5. End the debilitating negative financial impact on newspapers from Big Tech’s monopoly on digital advertising. 6. Create a low- or no-interest loan or grant program for small, rural newspapers to buy equipment for content creation and distribution. This would keep many small, rural papers afloat with the print and digital equipment needed to stop the proliferation of news deserts and ghost newspapers. 7. Create a fund for impoverished urban neighborhoods to receive paid news subscriptions and adequate broadband internet service. 8. Create a fund to provide grants to local communities creating startup news publications. 9. Require the U.S. Postal Service to provide free and reliable delivery for newspapers, building on the newspaper subsidy provided in the Postal Act of 1792. 10. Explore ways to protect local newspaper stewardships from outside financial investors. Keep in mind that newspapers have become hybrid print and digital products. This was a necessity as Big Tech’s monopoly took ever more advertising. Also, keep in mind technological and generational changes, with younger readers preferring digital delivery and most older readers preferring print. This dichotomy plays out in both how we develop our content mix and distribute our content. Local newspapers were never intended to be a cash cow for shortterm, absentee investors. They are local institutions providing a vital service to their communities. Newspapers are also the only business specifically mentioned and given protection in the U.S. Constitution. That’s because the Founding Fathers knew that a robust newspaper industry is essential to the success of America’s democracy. Saving the local free press is critical and cannot wait. The time for action is now.