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The movement to build a new future for local news and civic information is only getting stronger. Organizations like City Bureau and CivicLex are advancing new models of journalism, empowering community members to take an active role in civic education and newsgathering. Coalitions like the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets are getting organized and building support networks. Right here at Free Press, the Media 2070 project is laying the groundwork to address the long history of racism at the core of our media system.

But there’s another important lever: policy change. Despite its importance to our democracy and civic health, local journalism has largely remained outside of legislative agendas. The emerging field of civic media in particular is primed for growth, but without legislative support, its potential will remain stunted.

Fortunately, this could soon change. Following historic steps forward in California, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington over the past few years, state legislatures are increasingly springing into action. In January, we applauded Wisconsin lawmakers for introducing a package of bills that could revitalize local journalism in the state. Since then, other significant policy measures have advanced that could reshape the local-news policy debate nationwide.

Now, our collective job is to make sure that these policies are as focused as possible in addressing community-information needs and on supporting the community publishers, ethnic media outlets and nonprofit newsrooms that will carry us into a new age of connection and civic engagement. Local news is a public good, and one that the commercial market alone cannot produce enough of. Legislators should act accordingly.

Here’s what you should know about a busy couple of months in local-news policy:

A new revenue stream for local news in California

For the past year, a broad base of civil- and digital-rights groups, small publishers and community advocates have raised alarms about the California Journalism Preservation Act (AB 886), a well-intentioned but misguided bill that could line the pockets of corporate media giants, harm the independent newsrooms that most need support and threaten core principles of the open internet. The CJPA is undergoing amendments, and will be reintroduced before the end of the session this summer.

In April, however, Sen. Steve Glazer introduced a new bill that could reshape the debate around local journalism in the legislature. SB 1327 would impose a “data extraction mitigation fee” on major tech platforms to help support the production of local news. The revenue this fee would generate, which would come from the massive digital advertising profits of these tech platforms, is an estimated $500 million. As written, the bill directs most of this money to commercial outlets through an employment tax credit to cover a portion of employees’ wages. The bill also allocates $25 million for nonprofit outlets.

There’s a lot to like about SB 1327. As Free Press Action’s Alisha Wang Saville noted at the bill’s introductory press conference, we have long favored taxing advertising revenue to support the sort of local journalism that best serves communities — the same sort that the changing economics of news production have decimated. The hiring incentives built into the employment tax credit could also help arrest the staggering job losses that are plaguing the journalism industry.

But this bill won’t reach its full potential without some key changes. The simplest: Wealthy commercial broadcasters should be cut out. Entities like ABC, Fox, NBC, Sinclair and Nexstar are doing just fine financially and don’t need the help. Instead, lawmakers should prioritize community publishers, ethnic media and nonprofit outlets — these are the journalism providers most adept at addressing community-information needs, and they’re also facing some of the shakiest financial landscapes. Ethnic media outlets in particular should receive a significant carveout in this bill, given their outsized role in a state where more than 40 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home.

You can read more of Free Press Action’s analysis in this letter we sent to the California Senate Committee on Revenue and Taxation. Members of that committee voted to advance the bill in a hearing on May 8, and the legislation now heads to the Appropriations Committee. Sen. Glazer has committed to engaging with stakeholders on additional amendments as it moves forward.

New York passes payroll tax-credit

On the other side of the country, the Empire State Local News Coalition — comprised of more than 200 newspapers in New York — banded together this spring to drive the passage of a payroll tax-credit provision modeled after the Local Journalism Sustainability Act in the U.S. Congress.

New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, sponsor of the measure, explained how it works in a recent press statement:

“The program – $30 million per year for three years – allows each eligible newspaper and broadcast business to receive a 50% refundable tax credit against the first $50,000 of an employee's salary, up to a total of $300,000 per business. $4 million will be allocated to incentivize print and broadcast businesses to hire new journalists. The remaining $26 million will be split evenly between businesses with fewer than 100 employees and those with more than 100 employees, ensuring that hyperlocal, independent news organizations have a fair shot at access to these funds.”

We’ve seen this idea introduced at the federal and state levels, but this marks the first time that it has actually turned into law. As advocates turn their focus from passage to implementation, that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.

More broadly, this kind of legislation could be an important bridge to more structural change. Payroll tax credits can’t address the underlying causes of the decline of local journalism — runaway corporate consolidation and a lack of public funding, to name a couple — and by nature, they exclude nonprofit outlets, which are doing important work and need support. These measures can, however, help stop some of the bleeding and generate momentum to address the deeper cracks that have long plagued journalism. 

Sweeping package of bills advance in Illinois

In Illinois, meanwhile, State Sen. Steve Stadelman has introduced a slew of local-news provisions in recent months that are making their way through the legislative process. These proposals originated in part from a task force the legislature tapped to examine local journalism in Illinois and outline possible support mechanisms. Free Press Action staff were interviewed as part of the task force’s work and shared research and analysis.

The new measures are broken up into two bills: the Strengthening Community Media Act (SB 3592) and the Journalism Preservation Act (SB 3591).

The Strengthening Community Media Act would:

  • Direct state agencies to commit at least 50 percent of their total ad spending to local-news organizations. 
  • Require local-news organizations to provide written notice 120 days before a sale to an out-of-state company. 
  • Provide journalism employers with a credit against the Personal Property Tax Replacement Income Tax for each qualified journalist hired during the year. This covers 50 percent of the wages of up to 150 qualified journalists. 
  • Provide small businesses with a tax credit for advertising with local newspapers or broadcasters in the state.
  • Create a scholarship program for journalism students who commit to working at a local-news organization in the state for two years post-graduation.

A few of these provisions — the government ad-spending requirement, the payroll tax credit and the small-business advertising tax credit — have been introduced (or enacted) elsewhere. The state-funded journalism-scholarship program would be another instance of lawmakers partnering with higher ed to support local journalism, and the notice-of-sale provision is an intriguing foray into “replanting,” a concept from Rebuild Local News that aims to prevent the sale of ailing newsrooms to hedge funds and corporate chains. Collectively, these measures might help stabilize economic conditions for news outlets, and could be a first step to more enduring action.

The Journalism Preservation Act, however, is essentially a copy-and-paste of the California Journalism Preservation Act, with all the same inherent problems. Fortunately, Sen. Stadelman has prioritized the other package this session: The Strengthening Community Media Act has passed the Illinois Senate, and is now with the House as lawmakers work to hammer out a budget.

In all likelihood, the action in these state legislatures is just a taste of what’s to come in the next few years (and we haven’t even mentioned burgeoning public-funding efforts at the city level in Washington, D.C. and Seattle). As commercial local journalism continues to collapse —​​ and as the consequences for our society become more evident — more and more lawmakers will be turning their attention to this realm of policy change.

Free Press Action remains committed to working with civic-media practitioners, community members and legislators alike. And through this work, we’ll continue to prioritize community-information needs and center the independent, community-rooted and nonprofit newsrooms that will lead us to a more sustainable and equitable future for local news. 

Help Free Press Action keep fighting for policies that will give people the news and information they need: Donate today.

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