A growing list of bipartisan co-sponsors in Congress is making a second push for legislation that would help local newspapers through tax credits.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act was introduced in the House in July 2020 by U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash. It drew 78 co-sponsors but didn’t make it out of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The bill was reintroduced by Kirkpatrick and Newhouse on June 16 as HR 3940 and currently has 18 co-sponsors — 13 Democrats and five Republicans.

The bill would help local newspapers reach viability over the next few years through three tax credits:

• Newspaper subscriptions: A five-year credit of up to $250 annually to cover 80 percent of subscription costs for readers the first year and 50 percent each of the next four years.

• Hiring journalists: A five-year credit of up to $25,000 the first year and $15,000 each of the next four years to help newspapers hire and pay the salaries of journalists.

• Advertising: A five-year credit of up to $5,000 the first year and $2,500 each of the next four years for small businesses to spend on advertising in local newspapers and media, including local television and radio stations.

The act would sunset in five years and has the support of newspapers and industry groups across the country, including the National Newspapers Association, News Media Alliance and America’s Newspapers.

Kirkpatrick, who said she grew up in northern Arizona relying on her local paper, isn’t surprised at the bipartisan support.

“I think there are many members who live in small towns and understand how important these small papers are to their communities,” she said. “They really provide a lifeblood for the community.”

She said small-town newspapers publish “all those local things that just don’t get picked up in the major papers and are important to local communities.”

Kirkpatrick said she is optimistic the legislation could pass this session, and that there is support for a Senate companion bill that could include Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., as a sponsor.

Media criticism

Newhouse, whose central Washington district is largely rural, said they’ve felt the effects of a shrinking media presence. 

“In our district, like other districts around the country, it’s a huge issue,” he said. “We’re losing our small-town newspapers, and we depend on them as local sources of news. I thought (the act) was a viable, common-sense way to assist parts of the news industry we rely upon, and we want to be sure we have them long into the future.” 

He said it might take time for the bill to gain support but that he will stay on it even if it doesn’t pass this year. 

“It takes time for some ideas to mature and gain enough understanding on the part of enough people to move up to the top of the agenda,” Newhouse said. “I’m not disheartened that it didn’t get further in the process (last year), it just seems to be the way things work.”

He also doesn’t expect growing criticism of the media in recent years to upend the plan. 

“Some people look at the idea with skepticism, that’s one of the hurdles we have to address, but that’s a fairly easy one,” he said. 

Most of the criticism is directed at national media, “while this effort is focused on local news and the impact of preserving the sources of local news, and how it helps people understand in a better way national issues and how they impact their local areas.”

As for the costs, he said it depends on how you look at it. 

“It’s not grants or loans and just sending them out to newspaper companies,” Newhouse said. “It could be argued that the revenue to the federal government wouldn’t have come into the treasury anyway because if a newspaper goes under you’re not going to be realizing any tax revenue.” 

Growing issues

The newspaper industry cites alarming figures from the past 17 years and plummeting revenue and circulation during the pandemic among the reasons to seek the breathing room the Local Journalism Sustainability Act would offer.

An estimated 2,000 newspapers have closed across the country since 2004, leaving thousands of communities without a local source of news and information, even as big-city metros continue to contract and pull back on regional coverage. The pandemic also brought furloughs, pay cuts and staff reductions to scores of newspapers and media outlets.

But the effect of fewer papers goes deeper than jobs. 

Research over the past 12 years shows that strong local newspapers increase voter turnout; make citizens more knowledgeable and more likely to engage with local government; force local television stations to improve quality; encourage split-ticket and, thus, less-partisan voting; and make elected officials more responsive and efficient.

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