Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Jan. 31, 2023

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Dudley: Congress, help save local news


Nearly a year after launching in Bellingham, a scrappy news startup is making a difference, informing voters and holding officials accountable. Cascadia Daily News, which publishes a weekly newspaper and daily report online, now has a staff of 10, plus stringers and freelancers, Executive Editor Ron Judd said.

Its reporting contributed to a decision to pause a wastewater project that would increase residents’ bills. It also produced a “citizens agenda” for the coming election, with readers helping identify priorities. Judd said its reporting also appears to have prodded the emaciated local daily, part of a national chain owned by Wall Street types, to finally increase its local news report.

Cascadia’s still trying to crack the mystery of building a strong digital business needed for long-term sustainability and to broaden its audience beyond a core of avid news readers. To me this makes another great argument for Congress to help, by passing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act this year.

The bill would enable small and large outlets to collectively bargain for fair compensation from Google and Facebook. It would basically get these dominant platforms to start paying the equivalent of a subscription for news content that adds value to their platforms.

Meanwhile, newspaper staffing fell 70 percent over the last 15 years and two papers a week are closing, according to a June report by Northwestern University research. That came out before another wave of layoffs at Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which last week ordered remaining employees to take unpaid time off during the holidays.

“The JCPA is really designed to stop the bleeding and hopefully provide a path forward to make sure we can sustain and grow local journalism,” its lead House sponsor, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told me.

The Rhode Island Democrat said he expects the House to mark up the bipartisan bill after the midterm election, and it will mirror a Senate version that advanced out of committee last month.

“There’s no good reason it couldn’t get done this Congress,” he said.

Cicilline said there’s strong, bipartisan support for JCPA because people recognize the industry’s “economic free fall” and that “large, dominant platforms have basically taken a free ride on the work, the content, generated by local news organizations.”

Frosting on the cake is how JCPA would support not just existing outlets but new ventures like Cascadia.

Around 550 online news startups are operating across the U.S. but more than 90 percent are in big cities, few have sustainable business models and their growth is stagnant, Northwestern’s Local News Initiative found. That’s not doing much to fill the void created by the implosion of the newspaper industry, which left thousands of rural and suburban areas with little to no local news coverage.

Stability would enable Cascadia to do more investigations, special projects and in-depth reporting. That additional content would in turn help build its audience and subscriptions, which it must do regardless of JCPA.

Indeed, the 6,000 or so remaining newspapers and other local news outlets ultimately need local support to survive.

They also need to get paid for their work and a fair chance to compete online, as JCPA would do if Congress gets it done this year.

Brier Dudley is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative.