It’s rather late in the game to ask whether hedge funds can be stopped from buying up every last one of our local newspapers. After all, about half of us are already stuck with a paper that is owned by, or is in debt to, the likes of Alden Global Capital (Tribune Publishing and MediaNews Group), Apollo Global Management (Gannett) and Chatham Asset Management (McClatchy).
Still, with Alden having now set its sights on Lee Enterprises, a chain that owns 77 daily newspapers in 26 states, we need to take steps aimed at preventing what is already a debacle from devolving into a catastrophe.
Our faculty at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism recently voted unanimously to support two pieces of legislation aimed at addressing the local news crisis — a bill to make it easier for newspapers to become nonprofit organizations and a resolution that asks Congress to help reverse the decline of community journalism.
The bills were introduced in the House today by U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., and co-sponsored by Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and David Cicilline, D-R.I.
“As local newspapers are being bought up and taken over by large corporations, it is incumbent on Congress to act to protect this public good,” said DeSaulnier in a press release. “My legislation would do just that and ensure newspapers in every community can continue to provide high-quality local coverage that millions of American rely on and deserve.”
Professor Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism, said, “The hollowing-out and disappearance of local news organizations imperils journalism, communities and our democracy. These measures provide a financial lifeline and tools for the next generation of journalists to pursue new models and innovation that bring more local news to communities.”
The bills are not related to the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits to subscribers, advertisers and publishers. The tax credit that would benefit publishers is part of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. DeSaulnier’s bills, by contrast, would address the problem that journalism is not among the activities that qualifies for nonprofit status, even though the IRS has approved such status for many news organizations over the years.
The full press release issued by Rep. DeSaulnier’s office follows.
Congressman DeSaulnier Introduces Legislative Package to Support and Preserve Local Journalism
Washington, D.C. – Today, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11), along with his colleagues Congressman Ed Perlmutter (CO-07), Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-08), and Congressman David Cicilline (RI-01) introduced two pieces of legislation aimed at supporting and protecting local journalism, and honoring its role in bolstering our democracy, holding government accountable, and informing the electorate. The Saving Local News Act (H.R. 6068) would make it easier for newspapers to become non-profits, allowing them the flexibility to focus less on maximizing profits and more on producing quality content. The local news resolution (H.Res. 821) recognizes the importance of local media outlets to society and expresses the urgent need for Congress to help stop the decline of local media outlets.
“Local journalism has been the bedrock of American democracy for centuries. I have seen firsthand how journalists for local newspapers have kept our community informed, educated voters, and held power to account,” said Congressman DeSaulnier. “As local newspapers are being bought up and taken over by large corporations, it is incumbent on Congress to act to protect this public good. My legislation would do just that and ensure newspapers in every community can continue to provide high-quality local coverage that millions of American rely on and deserve.”
“Local and accurate sources of news are becoming more and more important for our community and our country. I believe Congress has a role to play to ensure legitimate media outlets are able to better adapt to the changing media landscape and continue to inform Americans in every community,” said Congressman Perlmutter.
“An informed American public is essential to strong democracy,” said Congressman Raskin. “We cannot allow worldwide propaganda and conspiracy theories to replace hard local news based on local reportage. I’m proud to join Rep. DeSaulnier in introducing this important legislation that will give local news the flexibility it needs to thrive in a dangerously toxic media environment.”
“Over the past 15 years, one in five newspapers have closed, and the number of journalists working for newspapers has been slashed in half. We now live in a country in which at least 200 counties have no local newspapers at all,” said Congressman Cicilline. “This crisis in American journalism has led to the crises we are seeing today in our democracy and civic life. We cannot let this trend continue because if it does, we risk permanently compromising the news organizations that are essential to our communities, holding the government and powerful corporations accountable, and sustaining our democracy. I’m proud to support this resolution and the Saving Local News Act and thank Congressman DeSaulnier for his leadership and partnership in this work.”
“We commend Congressman DeSaulnier for introducing this important piece of legislation that recognizes the importance of nonprofit journalism to the American society. At a time when news deserts are a growing concern, we must ensure that we support all newsrooms in their efforts to provide high-quality journalism to their local communities. This journalism bill that would allow non-profit newsrooms to treat advertising revenue as nontaxable income could be helpful to a number of publishers,” said David Chavern, President and CEO, News Media Alliance.
“Community newspapers are exploring many new models for sustainability. Our newsrooms realize that without us, whole communities will lose their center of gravity. A nonprofit model is one that can work in some communities, but just establishing this status isn’t enough to keep the doors open and journalists at work. The need for revenue from a variety of sources, including local advertisers, remains acute. NNA supports the Saving Local News Act and thanks Congressman DeSaulnier for his work on behalf of local communities,” said Brett Wesner, Chair, National Newspaper Association and Publisher, Wesner Publications, Cordell, OK.
“Honest, truthful reporting is essential to informing our democracy at all levels. Without it, we won’t remain a nation of the people, by the people, for the people. Bills that help sustain local reporting that informs people about what their government representatives are up to, will help keep the citizens in charge of our country,” said George Stanley, President of the News Leaders Association.
“News organizations are looking at multiple ways to fund their organizations while continuing to deliver local journalism that is fundamental to a thriving Democracy. If news organizations want to pursue the nonprofit business model; it should be as accessible for established organizations as it is for news startups. Our members are known and trusted in the communities they serve and removing the hurdles to find philanthropic support would allow newsrooms to focus on serving their communities,” said Brandi Rivera, Publisher, Santa Barbara Independent and Board Member, Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
“Community newspapers are woven into the fabric of American society and provide accurate and trusted information that improves the lives of individuals in the communities they serve. It is no secret that newspapers face an increasing number of existential threats from online competitors which have left them with a decreasing number of revenue opportunities. This measure would provide news organizations with the means to better rise to these challenges and continue to play a vital role in their communities by holding the feet of the powerful to the fire and giving voice to the powerless,” said Jim Ewert, General Counsel, California News Publishers Association.
“Free Press Action supports this important legislation and applauds Congressman DeSaulnier for recognizing the importance of building, supporting and sustaining local nonprofit news operations,” said Craig Aaron, President and co-CEO of Free Press Action. “In too many places, corporate media have shrunk newsrooms or abandoned communities entirely. Nonprofit news has emerged as the future of local journalism, and it’s our best hope for keeping reporters on the beat focused on the needs of local communities, serving communities of color, and reaching so many people who have never been well served by the media. This bill will remove obstacles to nonprofit journalism, help launch more of these outlets, encourage more existing outlets to go nonprofit, and create more of the kind of high-quality journalism we need to inform our communities and keep our democracy thriving.”
“The hollowing-out and disappearance of local news organizations imperils journalism, communities and our democracy. These measures provide a financial lifeline and tools for the next generation of journalists to pursue new models and innovation that bring more local news to communities,” said Professor Jonathan Kaufman, Director of the Northeastern University School of Journalism.
“The health of the news industry is so precarious, all efforts to strengthen an industry so instrumental to democracy are well received. Thanks to Rep. DeSaulnier for stepping up,” said Jody Brannon, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Journalism and Liberty at the Open Markets Institute.
“The U.S. tax code needs this important update to make it easier for nonprofit news organizations to grow across our country. We’ve lost tens of thousands of local journalists over the last decade. That’s meant fewer journalists covering local government meetings, local business and even high school sports. Journalists are essential to holding power to account, watching over our democracy and providing a voice to the voiceless. We applaud Rep. DeSaulnier’s support of journalism. Our country was founded under the principle that a free press was the best way to make sure we have a robust democracy by having an informed electorate. We all have to fight now to save local news,” said Jon Schleuss, President of NewsGuild-CWA.
“The newspaper business model is broken. At a time when local journalism has never been more essential, journalists are losing their jobs across the country, leaving important stories untold. Compelling, original journalism does continue to drive significant advertising revenue—just not for newspapers. Big Tech giants, like Google and Facebook, have used their monopoly power to capture huge swaths of the digital advertising market, making it nearly impossible for many papers to chart a path forward in the digital age. This has allowed hedge fund vulture capitalists to scoop up scores of newspapers across the country—all of whom have been reduced to shadows of their former glory by a short-sighted cut, cut, cut approach. We welcome and applaud efforts to help news outlets continue to cover of the communities they serve. This legislation will create a path that communities can use to save their local papers. Local news is a key piece of American democracy, and while addressing the underlying problems Big Tech has created for journalists is complex, we have to do everything we can to allow for news to thrive,” said the Save Journalism Project.
“PEN America applauds the introduction of the Saving Local News Act – and the accompanying resolution on the importance of local news – as a welcome and needed step to support America’s journalism ecosystem. By making it easier for news organizations to become nonprofits, Congressman DeSaulnier’s legislation will open up a sustainable financial pathway for quality local journalism, recognizing its value as a public good. Enacting this bill will strengthen a fundamental pillar of our democracy, encouraging diverse reporting, civic engagement, and access to essential community information,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, Washington director of PEN America.
Since 2017, estimated daily newspaper circulation fell 11 percent from the previous year (Pew Research Center). Congressman DeSaulnier established a working group of dedicated Members of Congress from areas affected by a drought of high-quality journalism. Together they have been working to highlight this crisis and bring attention to the need to promote local journalism, including by holding a Special Order on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and introducing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (H.R. 1735), a bill to create a temporary safe harbor from anti-trust laws to allow news organizations to join together and negotiate with dominant online platforms to get a fair share of advertising profits.
Congressman DeSaulnier’s bill and resolution are supported by: News Media Alliance, National Newspaper Association, News Leaders Association, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action, Faculty of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, Save Journalism Project, PEN America, Center for Journalism and Liberty at the Open Markets Institute, and NewsGuild-CWA.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA), which I’ve written about rather obsessively, is built upon the foundation of a three-legged stool: a tax write-off for individuals of up to $250 for subscription fees or donations to local news organizations; a tax credit for advertisers in local news outlets; and a payroll tax credit for publishers that hire or retain journalists.
Now the payroll credit has been carved out and added to the Build Back Better bill, which has passed the House and now faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that the provision would add up to nearly $1.7 billion over the next five years for newspapers, digital operations and broadcast operations.
Tracy notes — rather huffily, if I’m reading him accurately — that large newspapers like the Times would be excluded because they employ more than 1,500 in one location, but giant newspaper chains such as Gannett and those owned by Alden Global Capital would stand to benefit. As I’ve said before, I wish there were a way of restricting the benefits to independent owners; still, this strikes me as worth trying.
What I’m more concerned about is the political wisdom of adding just one part of the LJSA to Build Back Better, which — despite the optimism voiced by President Biden and other Democratic leaders — could be doomed given the seemingly endless demands made by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
There is at least some bipartisan support for the LJSA. Moreover, 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. If Build Back Better passes, it will be with just 50 Democratic votes and Vice President Harris breaking the tie — and at that point it seems likely that the other two legs of the stool would disappear. If Build Back Better goes down to defeat, proponents of the LJSA will have to start from scratch.
Even so, the benefits that would be provided by the payroll tax credit are not insignificant. Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, tells The New York Times that the credit would mean $200,000 in just the first year for his struggling newspaper. “We’d be walking in tall cotton,” he’s quoted as saying. (Ellen and I spoke with Cullen recently on our podcast, What Works: The Future of Local News.)
Providing government assistance to journalism is fraught with concerns about the First Amendment and the need for an independent press. Yet journalism has always benefited from government help, starting with postal subsidies in the late 1700s. The LJSA is worth trying. I just hope that Democratic leaders haven’t outsmarted themselves by splitting up a bill that stood a decent chance of passing and grafting it onto a large package that they just can’t seem to get done.
Penelope “Penny” Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, arguably launched a movement with her path-breaking research on “news deserts” and the forces undermining community newspapers across the nation.
Abernathy, a former executive with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, was also Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina from 2008 to 2020. She talks about why this is a pivotal moment for community journalism, about her forthcoming research and about why her journalism students are still bullish on speaking truth to power at the local level.
In Quick Takes, Dan reports that the nonprofit strategy at The Salt Lake City Tribune is actually working out, and Ellen tunes us in to Heartland Signal, a new digital outlet with a Democratic spin that is setting up to cover the midterm congressional elections.
We have two recommendations for you today. First, listen to our latest podcast, highlighted by our interview with Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times. Then, watch the documentary “Storm Lake,” which is on most PBS stations (including GBH-2 in Boston) at 10 p.m. Dan previewed “Storm Lake” for GBH News last week.
Dolores Cullen is scanning through photos she’d taken at a local elementary school where Abby Bean, the reigning Iowa Pork Producers Pork Queen, had enthused over the finer points of hog production. The kids were encouraged to oink. There was a piglet wearing a diaper. It was the sort of event that oozes cute.
Chris Lovett, longtime news director and anchor of the Boston Neighborhood Network News local cable access show, reflects on his career in community journalism, on camera and off. A Dorchester native, he’s interviewed local activists, politicos (including Tom Menino when he was a district city councilor) and neighborhood stalwarts. Lovett had a front-row seat as the changing media landscape shaped Boston, and he connects the dots between Menino’s early days as a frequent broadcast guest and Michelle Wu’s strategic use of social media. He has also shared his expertise with any number of Boston University students. And he’s not done with journalism yet, so stay tuned. Please give it a listen — and subscribe via Apple, Spotify or wherever fine podcasts are heard.
In April 2020, I questioned whether Report for America should be placing journalists at newspapers owned by cost-cutting corporate chains.
RFA is a program that enables news organizations to hire young journalists for about two years at a fraction of the cost, with a grant from RFA and additional fundraising covering 75%. The dilemma is that though these news organizations clearly need help, and the communities they cover benefit from that help, there is at least a theoretical chance that their chain owners will take it as an incentive not to hire someone at full cost.
At the time, RFA co-founder Steven Waldman defended those placements, saying in part that “half of our placements are in nonprofit, and others are in locally owned commercial entities. But we do indeed have some placements in newspapers that are owned by chains. Our primary standard is: Will this help the community?” (His full answer, as well as comments from the other co-founder, Charles Sennott, are here.)
Now Report for America has encountered an unexpected hazard to doing business with chain owners. McClatchy, owned by Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund, has decided not to apply for any RFA journalists next year. The apparent reason, according to Feven Merid at the Columbia Journalism Review: Waldman hurt their feelings in an op-ed piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. Merid writes:
Sources tell CJR that McClatchy’s decision came in response to Waldman’s hedge-fund criticism. Kristin Roberts, McClatchy’s senior vice president of news, would not confirm the company’s plans, and did not respond to questions concerning the company’s reaction to Waldman’s hedge-fund critiques.
McClatchy owns several dozen papers in 14 states, including important outlets like the Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee and The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina. The chain staggered under piles of debt for many years before finally collapsing into bankruptcy a few years ago. Chatham bailed them out and has thus far proved to be a more benevolent owner than, say, Alden Global Capital, the most notorious of the hedge-fund owners. Indeed, Waldman’s op-ed specifically mentioned Alden.
But if Merid’s sources are correct, then it seems that Chatham executives have a bad case of rabbit ears.
Waldman’s op-ed, headlined “How to Stop Hedge Funds from Wrecking Local News,” calls on Washington to take steps that would encourage chain-owned newspapers to divest their holdings and make it easier for independent local owners to step up. He wrote:
It could offer incentives for owners to sell these papers to local interests by waiving capital gains taxes if the acquirer is a local nonprofit organization or public benefit corporation. It could give a time-limited payroll tax break to the acquiring organizations. Congress could also, through the Small Business Administration or Commerce Department, provide loan guarantees for low-interest financing for such transitions or special tax credits, similar to those available to businesses operating in enterprise zones.
Antitrust action to break up the chains could be in order as well, according to Waldman.
At the moment, 31 RFA journalists work at 21 McClatchy news outlets. The chain’s decision to spurn future RFA journalists won’t hurt the prospects of young reporters and photographers, since there will no doubt be plenty of other newsrooms that participate. But it will hurt the communities that those papers serve unless the chain suddenly decides to go on a hiring spree.
It’s an absurd situation, and I hope the folks at Chatham and McClatchy come to their senses.
Original item: You can never take anything for granted. Until recently, though, it seemed like a reasonably good bet that Congress would pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits for subscribers, publishers and advertisers for five years. The idea was to bolster the bottom line of community newspapers, radio stations and television outlets while giving them some time to figure out a path to financial sustainability.
Last week, though, the House dropped the $1 billion measure from its version of the reconciliation bill. So now it’s up to the Senate to restore it to the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation, meaning that the fate of local journalism rests in the unsteady hands of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Rick Edmonds of Poynter, who has all the details, wrote that the bill now “faces a giant hurdle” — and that was on Tuesday, before the election returns from Virginia panicked the already-jumpy Democrats. You’d like to think that the Republican resurgence would focus the Democrats’ minds on the need to get something done, but it will probably have the opposite effect. And with Manchin and Sinema, who knows?
I’m what you might call a skeptical supporter of the legislation. Although the assistance would be indirect enough not to threaten journalistic integrity, I’m troubled by the prospect of corporate chain owners lining up at the trough. Ideally, federal help should foster independent local news organizations while letting the very owners who helped create this mess figure things out for themselves.
Still, it’s worth giving it a try on a temporary basis. As Steven Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, puts it, “The cost is miniscule compared to the rest of the Build Back Better package — less than 0.1% of its total. But this provision is the only thing in the bill that would help save democracy.”
In Episode 2 of the “What Works” podcast, we interview the investigative reporter Julie Reynolds, who has established a reputation as the scourge of Alden Global Capital. Among our topics: Tribune Publishing’s legally dubious vote to sell off its newspapers to the hedge fund as well as Alden’s ties to a shady “shadow bank.” Plus: Rocky, Bullwinkle and pink slime. Details — including how to subscribe — on our podcast page.