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Dudley: Save local newspapers, Mr. Biden

By Brier Dudley
Published: March 25, 2024, 6:01am

Something was missing in President Joe Biden’s rousing State of the Union speech, and there’s an easy fix.

Biden lamented that America’s comeback story is not being told.

“I came to office determined to get us through one of the toughest periods in the nation’s history. We have,” he said this month. “It doesn’t make … news, (but) in a thousand cities and towns, the American people are writing the greatest comeback story never told.”

Well, that’s what happens when a country loses two-thirds of its newspaper reporters and its local press system is on life support. A robust, trusted local news system is how Americans would read about federal investments improving their communities and creating local jobs. That progress isn’t apparent when you’re left with news from social media and cable TV.

Abundant research shows that civic engagement declines when local newspapers fade away. Voters in such places often don’t know their mayor’s name, much less government spending outcomes.

There’s an easy solution, just waiting for leadership in Washington, D.C., to get it done. It would cost perhaps .03 percent of the 2025 budget that Biden proposed after his speech.

That would be the Community News and Small Business Support Act. It has bipartisan support, including from nearly all of Washington’s delegation.

I wish Biden included that in his speech, or in his budget. Better yet, he could use his influence to help get it passed this year, before hundreds more newspapers fail and thousands more journalists are laid off.

Biden clearly knows the press is essential to democracy, which he’s admirably working to defend. His budget would provide “over $3 billion for bolstering global democracy, including $345 million for the President’s Initiative for Democratic Renewals to foster transparent and accountable governance.”

Great. How about doing the same in rural and suburban America? More than 70 million citizens live in news deserts there, without local news shining light on governance and holding officials accountable.

The Community News bill would halt the spread of news deserts, with tax credits for outlets retaining or hiring journalists. This would save newsroom jobs and incentivize publishers to hire more. It would spur news outlets’ renewal and the creation of new ones.

The unwritten comeback story includes a record 16 million Americans starting small businesses, “and each one is a literal act of hope,” Biden said.

Each could also be a news story, telling people about their enterprising neighbors and economic progress. But few will get covered because local newsrooms are gone, gutted or overstretched.

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Biden repeatedly mentioned fairness. He said his American values include this being a place giving “everyone a fair shot.” Right on. How about giving local newspapers a fair shot to succeed online?

That won’t happen unless the government reins monopolistic gatekeepers. Biden’s Department of Justice is on it, pursuing an antitrust case over Google business practices that are shorting publishers. But that case will take years, and publishers can’t wait.

Another bipartisan proposal would give small and regional publishers a fair shot of getting paid by tech giants making billions off news content. They’re already paying the biggest outlets. How about giving the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act a boost, Mr. President?

The Community News bill would stop newsrooms’ bleeding. The JCPA would put the industry on a path toward sustainability. Democracy would be strengthened by having more informed voters and shared facts inoculating them against the worsening scourge of misinformation. Civic illiteracy would decline, and Americans would know more about what their government and elected officials are doing right and wrong.

That’s a comeback story that Biden can help Congress write tomorrow, before it becomes an obituary.

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