News-Miner opinion: U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell would, if she has her way, subsidize local newspapers and broadcasters with $2.3 billion in public funding — in grants and tax credits — as part of President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.
To that end, the Washington Democrat earlier this week released a 66-page report entitled, “Local Journalism: America’s Most Trusted News Sources Threatened” that paints a dire picture of journalism in this country.
It is disturbing. Local newspaper revenues are down 70%. Local broadcasters’ revenues are off 40%. Almost 2,000 newspapers have closed, and 200 counties are “reading deserts” that no longer have a newspaper. Dwindling revenues have devastated newsrooms across the country. Newspapers have cut 60% of their newsroom staff from 2005 to 2020. That represents 40,000 newsroom workers. News organizations are unable to cover local government and public affairs as they once did. The public suffers.
Alaska has been hard-hit. Newspaper employment across the state in 2005 was 179, Cantwell’s report says. From 2005 to 2020, that number dropped by 120.
The reason for all that?
“Internet and digital information has fundamentally altered how Americans receive and digest the news ... “ the report says, and “local news has been hijacked by a few large news aggregation platforms, most notably Google and Facebook ... “
Advertisers, it turns out, are like everybody else, always looking for the most bang for their buck. A table in the report suggests that while it costs $40,000 at the Los Angeles Times to reach 400,000 readers, it costs only $5,600 at the Times digital operation. On Facebook? It costs $16.
Newspapers and broadcast outlets welcomed Cantwell’s suggestion that they should be considered part of the national infrastructure. The Seattle Times editorial board even urged readers to contact lawmakers and support Cantwell’s legislation, to be introduced sometime this week.
Cantwell’s bill would be in addition to the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, H.R. 7640, introduced last year in the House that would create three tax credits for local news organizations: One for local newspaper subscribers, worth up to $250 per year; one to encourage local media to hire and pay journalists, worth up to $12,500 per quarter (equivalent to $50,000 per year); and, one to incentivize businesses advertising with local media, worth up to $5,000 per year. It is co-sponsored by Democrat Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, along with 57 Democrats and 20 Republicans.
Government subsidies for newspapers and local broadcasters, on the surface, sound very much like a good thing, an easy out, but are they? Are they simply the camel’s nose, the very top of the slippery slope? After all, whoever is writing the checks or dispensing tax breaks wields significant power over outcomes. And what comes next? A government-hired supervisory editor in every newsroom to protect investment? Journalist licensing? Shaving this; padding that?
Would newspapers and broadcast outlets not find themselves beholden to the very power structure they are supposed to be reporting on — and independent from? How could they not if their very existence depended on government largesse? What would that do to the public’s image of newspapers?
Some would argue that such subsidies would be good things if they ensured heartland America would always have its local newspapers and broadcast outlets.
We cannot help but wonder: At what cost?