WASHINGTON (AP) — President Biden’s $1.85 trillion social spending bill includes a provision that, if it becomes law, would mark the first time the federal government has offered targeted support in response to the decline of local news.
The aid would come in the form of a payroll tax credit for companies that employ eligible local journalists. The measure would allow newspapers, digital news outlets and radio and television stations to claim a tax credit of $25,000 the first year and $15,000 the next four years for up to 1,500 journalists.
It’s a response to growing alarm that the elimination of newsroom jobs is leaving communities without access to critical information.
One-fourth of the country’s newspapers have shuttered and half of local journalism jobs have evaporated in the past 15 years, according to research from the University of North Carolina.
That leaves about 1,800 communities devoid of a local newspaper.
The concern has grown since Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund with a reputation of ruthless cost-cutting, acquired Tribune Publishing, one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains, in May.
But the credit, which would cost $1.67 billion over the next five years, instills more tension in the industry.
Some top Republicans in Congress have derided it as a handout.
Leading journalists acknowledge that it’s awkward to receive financial assistance from a government they cover independently.
“This is only a reluctant response to this fear of the collapse of local news and their business models,” said Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, an organization that places journalists in local newsrooms, including The Associated Press. “Most journalists start off with a healthy skepticism about the government getting involved and helping journalism. And that’s appropriate.
“But the reason why this is happening now is just the severity of the crisis.”
A key advocate is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has long supported efforts to help local journalism.
The provision is also supported by more than a dozen House Republicans, though the second-ranking GOP leader, Rep. Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, called it a scam in a recent tweet.
“Make no mistake — this is Biden and Dems in Congress helping pay the reporters’ salaries who cover for them,” he tweeted.
Though the proposal’s main objective was to rescue small papers that were hit hard as ad dollars evaporated at the start of the pandemic, it could help some larger companies too.
Gannett, one of the nation’s largest remaining newspaper chains, could gain as much as $127.5 million over five years if the bill becomes law, according to an analysis by the AP.
Maribel Perez Wadsworth, who heads up the news division of Gannett, which employs more than 4,000 journalists at USA Today and local papers such as The Arizona Republic and Detroit Free Press, called the credit a “good shot in the arm.”
“This isn’t the government deciding who gets it and who doesn’t get it,” said Jon Schleuss, president of The NewsGuild, a union that represents journalists, including those at the AP.
“It’s really helpful because it is targeted to where we’ve lost so many journalists over the past decade and that’s in the local.”