Many readers sent us a link last week to a fine piece by Boston Globe columnist Renée Loth, titled “Saving Democracy’s Front Lines — Local Newspapers.”
“Local newspapers hold a lens to the regional differences that distinguish American life,” Loth wrote. “National media tend to homogenize — or polarize — but local publications highlight the concerns of communities far outside our own bubbles. … Newspapers are the civic glue that holds us together, and the closer to home, the tighter the bond.”
It’s encouraging to see the role of small newspapers in civic life being valued — and the threat to democracy posed by distant corporate ownership of newspapers called out.
“Predatory hedge funds are buying up legacy newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and strip-mining them for profit,” Loth wrote. “Smaller, regional publications are especially vulnerable. What fills the vacuum are Twitter trolls, rumor mills, conspiracy theories, propaganda, disinformation campaigns, and press releases.”
Loth noted the proposed Local Journalism Sustainability Act, an effort to give struggling local newspapers a financial boost. There are, in fact, several different proposals with the same general purpose, some offering tax credits to subscribers, donors, advertisers, and publishers, others making it easier for newspapers to become nonprofit organizations.
One bill introduced in the House, the Saving Local News Act, is co-sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who is well known here as a longtime second-home owner in Wellfleet. “An informed American public is essential to strong democracy,” said Raskin. “We cannot allow worldwide propaganda and conspiracy theories to replace hard local news based on local reportage.”
The latest development is Sen. Manchin’s single-handed demolition of the “Build Back Better” legislation. One provision of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act — a generous tax credit to publishers who hire or retain employees — was incorporated in that $2 trillion bill. Now that particular benefit appears to be dead in the water.
I’m not sure that’s such a terrible outcome for local news. The tax credit was written so as to help not just small publishers like us, but to produce a windfall for huge companies including GateHouse-Gannett and Alden Global, the “predatory hedge funds” that Renée Loth wrote about. They’re not “local,” of course, though they own hundreds of small papers. And in what seems like a well-planned political move, the tax benefit left out the New York Times and the Washington Post, which are not working to destroy local news organizations the way Gatehouse-Gannett and Alden Global are.
As Dan Kennedy wrote in his Media Nation column, “The tax write-off for subscriptions and donations strikes me as more interesting and creative than simply handing money to publishers for not laying people off.”
And how about this for a radical idea for helping community newspapers: rebuild the U.S. Postal Service, which was established in the 1700s to strengthen democracy by making the dissemination of local news easier?