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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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Dudley: Support for local news legislation grows

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Leadership turmoil in Congress could help the local news industry in its quest for federal support, according to an update provided to publishers gathered recently in Chicago.

That’s in part because there’s growing appreciation of the industry’s dire situation and bipartisan support for federal intervention, such as tax credits to help save newsroom jobs.

“I think the reality is, unfortunately, many legislators have seen newspapers close in their districts; their districts are worse,” Dean Ridings, CEO of America’s Newspapers, said during the trade group’s Senior Leadership Conference. “The towns that have lost their newspapers are not better off, and they know that.”

Most publishers desperately need support as their businesses are disrupted by technological and consumer changes. While the industry is evolving and finding new business models, that’s impeded by the unfair business practices of tech giants that were documented by Congress and federal and state regulators and are slowly being addressed in court.

Meanwhile, two newspapers a week are closing, on average. Newspaper employment has fallen 70 percent since 2005, according to research by Northwestern University’s Medill School.

The key proposals are temporary payroll tax credits to preserve newsroom jobs and a bill that would enable newspapers to collectively negotiate agreements with tech platforms, where their stories are increasingly read.

Then there’s the imminent threat of generative artificial intelligence scraping, blending and repackaging online newspaper stories, potentially driving a final nail in the industry’s coffin.

The News/Media Alliance, another trade group, is drafting a legislative proposal to address what some publications are calling an “existential threat” from AI, according to its CEO, Danielle Coffey.

“There is no business model for our industry with some versions of AI,” she told the conference.

Tax credits to sustain newsrooms while the industry retools for digital competition were first proposed in 2020 as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. It also included a household credit for news subscriptions and credits for small businesses advertising locally. The newsroom credits came close to passing in 2021 as part of a pandemic relief spending package.

A scaled-down version was introduced in July as the Community News and Small Business Support Act. U.S. Reps. Claudia Tenney, an upstate New York Republican, and Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat, are co-sponsors.

The bill, H.R. 4756, now has 13 Republican and 14 Democratic sponsors. Other Washington co-sponsors so far are U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Derek Kilmer.

Coffey’s group is leading the push for the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, a temporary antitrust exemption that would allow news organizations to collectively bargain compensation agreements with Google and Facebook.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is held up in part by the opposition of U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chair of the Judiciary Committee. Coffey told the group that if Jordan did become House speaker, “he’ll have bigger fish to fry” and the bill could progress.

The bill is also furiously opposed by the tech giants, even though they’ve voluntarily made digital-content deals with a few of the largest publishers in the U.S. Left out are the 6,000 or so local newspapers providing most of America’s essential civic journalism, and needing fairer compensation online to survive in their more digital future.

“We believe the momentum and the wave of compensation to newspapers for their fair market value is inevitable,” Coffey said. “And we’ll keep fighting for the value that we produce and that we provide to audiences across the country and around the world.”

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

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