This editorial was published by the Post Register of Idaho Falls.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act was recently introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate. It is an innovative piece of legislation that could solve the problem of dwindling local journalism.
Journalism has been going through a rough time as readership transitions online.
The numbers are particularly striking in newspapers. There were 71,000 journalists employed in newspaper newsrooms in 2008, according to the Pew Research center. By last year, there were only 31,000.
The trend driving this decline is not a decline in readership — the growth in online audiences means the journalism produced by newspapers is often read more often now than at any point in prior history. But changes in advertising markets — the shift from print to online advertising, the replacement of classified ads with online markets, the closure of big-box retailers, etc. — mean that even record readership often does not produce sufficient revenue.
So every year, there is less journalism happening. More government entities slip into the fog, as there is no one watching what they do to alert the public when something significant is happening. Fewer people are requesting and combing through public records to ferret out questionable contracting decisions, or looking for violations of open meetings laws. Significant developments at major employers, in housing markets and in employment trends go unreported because there is no one to do the reporting.
Large, mainly rural, areas of the country are now classified as news deserts. The city councils and county commissions there operate with little outside oversight, apart from a few citizens with the time and dedication to attend weekly meetings for hours at a time, and perhaps post something of interest on social media.
The bill would carry substantial benefits for both producers and consumers of local news — print, digital or broadcast.
First, it would establish a $250 tax credit for individuals to subscribe to local (not national) media of their choice.
Second, it would give a payroll tax credit to news organizations for each journalist they employ, incentivizing news companies to channel new revenues into reporting.
Third, it would give small businesses a tax credit for spending on advertising in local media.
The government would not be in the business of rewarding coverage it likes or punishing coverage it doesn’t. Consumers can decide if and where their tax credits would be applied, but they wouldn’t have to choose between a subscription and other uses for their money. And local businesses decide if and where to spend tax-deductible advertising dollars.
There’s no telling what kind of media ecosystem would arise under this bill, or that established players would come out the winners. But it will mean more local reporters. And local reporters are vital to the health of any community and the accountability of its local government.
Idaho’s congressional delegation should review the bill and consider becoming cosponsors, and they should support it when it comes up for a vote.