GUEST EDITORIAL: Progress on saving America’s free press

The Seattle Times editorial board (TNS)
The U.S. Capitol Building at dusk on Jan. 20, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Edelman/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)

Congress is taking some encouraging steps toward the critical challenge of saving America’s local newspapers.

This was apparent in several recent proposals. A new House stimulus proposal would extend paycheck protection loans to additional local news outlets. A bipartisan group of senators introduced a stand-alone Senate bill offering similar loan support.

These proposals reflect growing appreciation in Congress of the crisis facing America’s free press, and the need to sustain it through and beyond the current health and economic crises.

Emergency support is critical for journalists and many others. Congress should simultaneously enact policies to prevent mass extinction of local newspapers.

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Before the year ends, Congress should create a “superfund” to sustain local newspapers. This could be done by imposing a small fee on the ad revenue of major online platforms like Google and Facebook.

Other democracies that depend on a free press are taking similar steps. Australia is using antitrust law, and France is using copyright protection rules to force Google and Facebook to compensate publishers for news stories and articles they use.

This is not punishing success, but rightly seeking compensation for content that online giants transmit and profit from. Google alone made $4.7 billion off of news stories it displayed via search and Google News in 2018, according to a study by the News Media Alliance.

Also needed are reforms to media-ownership rules, to sustain a diversity of news organizations doing original reporting and accountability journalism. Most significant reporting that communities need emanates from local newspapers, many of which are now facing extinction. The proliferation of websites displaying news stories is not a replacement.

The combination of sustained federal support and stronger ownership regulations would incentivize more philanthropists and local investors to sustain and revive local newspapers. That’s been a success in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles. But more is needed to help thousands of communities that have lost their newspaper or now have ghost papers, with negligible reporting, milked by absentee ownership groups.

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Multiple proposals are surfacing. One, from nonprofit advocacy group Free Press, calls for $5 billion to $6 billion. That would provide emergency support for 30,000 journalism jobs, tax credits and support for public-media organizations.

Such dollar amounts sound large. But that’s half a percent of a trillion dollar stimulus bill for something essential, noted Craig Aaron, Free Press co-CEO.

“Policymakers are actually talking about the need for policy to help journalists more than ever before, certainly more than at any time in the last 10 years and probably ever,” he said.

Several hundred House members have signed various letters of support, Aaron said, and a letter urging Senate leadership to extend stimulus support to local newspapers was signed by 19 senators.

“Local news plays an indispensable role in American civic life as a trusted source for critical information, a watchdog for government and corporate accountability, and a building block of social cohesion,” said the Senate letter, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “Thousands of communities across the country turn to local news for information on governance, elections, education, health and numerous issues specific to their cities, towns and neighborhoods.”

The pandemic is highlighting the importance of local newspapers and financial problems accelerating their demise. Bipartisan efforts to find solutions are much appreciated and should have long-term benefits for all Americans.

— From The Seattle Times editorial board.