In the nation’s capital, we’re frequently deluged with news and information — so much so that we often seek solace in nature, especially during the pandemic. We all know, however, that while it’s rejuvenating to replenish our spirits with a walk in the woods, our republic is in danger.
Coverage of the horrors of Jan. 6 and ensuing investigations reminds us of this daily. New forms of social media tribalism pitting factional extremes have taken hold. Driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms as well as immense profits, ever-expanding tech media giants have become the dominant driver of both information and misinformation, i.e., real vs. fake news.
Following trends that preceded the pandemic, local “news deserts” have also sprung up alarmingly and worsened around the country — not only in the heartland and small towns but right here in Washington, D.C.
Nearby neighborhoods and Georgetown have experienced a decline in local news outlets. Some of us may recall the Uptown Citizen, Georgetown & Country, Voice of the Hill and especially the Current and the Express Newspapers. We still have the Intowner and Southwesterner. According to the Library of Congress, at the beginning of 2020, there were approximately 75 newspapers in print in the District.
With the rise of the internet, local advertisers shifted to online platforms and away from print publications, forcing many local papers out of business. According to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism which publishes the non-profit Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, since 2008 the number of newsroom employees in the U.S. has fallen by about 30,000, or more than 25 percent, “while “more than 2,100 newspapers, including 70 daily papers, have stopped publishing since 2004.”
“Local news deserts are being filled by partisan hyperbole, unverified social media posts and harmful disinformation,” according to the Lenfest Institute. “Without accurate, independent news and information, families cannot make informed decisions about their health or education, communities cannot hold government accountable, and democracy itself comes under dire threat.”
The pandemic has exacerbated “news desertification” all the more. “More than 150 news companies and papers have undergone pay cuts, furloughs, layoffs or even shut their doors for good as a result of the pandemic,” reports the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.
Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan surveys this troubling landscape in her book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” Had the Miami Herald folded, we might never have learned of the evils of Jeffrey Epstein, she emphasizes. The decline of local news has meant “less political engagement, less voting across party lines, the possibility of more corruption at the local government level, and, I think, the weakening of community ties… It’s a real crisis,” Sullivan said during an interview on National Public Radio.
Fortunately, an innovative remedy against the loss of the forests of American journalism is at hand. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (H.R. 3940), currently under markup in the House Ways and Means Committee, provides an innovative and incentives-based approach not only to saving local newspapers but to fueling subscribership and helping small businesses.
Introduced by Reps. Ann Kirpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) in July 2020 (as H.R. 7640), the bill was jointly launched in the Senate Commerce Committee by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). It has quickly gained more than 70 cosponsors working across the Congressional aisle. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is a cosponsor of the bill. Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an association of more than 200 Black-owned news organizations, is also on board.
Instead of direct government subsidies, the bill relies on tax-credits for a free market approach — from the bottom up — that appears palatable to both liberals and conservatives.
Its provisions call for:
- Helping people subscribe to local newspapers (print or online) with up to $250 per year per individual to cover 80 percent of subscription fees to local newspapers for the first tax year and 50 percent for subsequent tax years.
- Helping local newsrooms make payroll with up to $12,500 per quarter ($50,000 per year) to reduce employment taxes for a local newspaper to hire and pay journalists.
- Helping local businesses with advertising costs in local newspapers with up to $5,000 per year for a small business to cover 80 percent of advertising with local media (local newspapers or broadcast stations) the first year after this act takes effect and up to $2,500 per year for another four years to cover 50 percent of such advertising.
“The Covid-19 pandemic made it crystal clear that local reporters and newsrooms are essential to keeping the public informed and safe, but their importance spans well beyond health emergencies,” said Cantwell upon introduction of the bill. “At its core, local news is about holding the powerful accountable. The strength of our democracy is based in truth and transparency; and local newsrooms are on the ground in our communities asking the critical questions, countering misinformation, and telling our stories. We have to protect these vital parts of our communities, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
While the bill may not be the perfect solution to the problem of news deserts during the pandemic — e.g., not everyone can afford news subscriptions even with subsidies and many larger newspapers are owned by wealthy hedge funds that stand to benefit — it would provide the most immediate and targeted economic booster shots to local newspapers, journalists and businesses suffering as the pandemic lingers.
In addition to letting members of Congress know you support this much-needed bill, we also encourage Georgetowners who wish to help our 67-year old local newspaper stay afloat to think about joining The Georgetowner Stakeholders Campaign. We urge local advertisers to place ads with us so that you can tell your own story — and we can continue to inform the community, make payroll and help Georgetown thrive.
Let’s keep the local forest of news healthy. And now, it’s time for that walk out in the fresh air…