Congress fiddles as local news industry burns


Americans know the local press is important to democracy and their communities — 85% said so in a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress also know that government support is needed to help save the local press system, and that it can be done without compromising news outlets’ independence.

But they’re taking too long to act. As we enter the second half of the year it’s appearing unlikely that Congress will do anything save local journalism in 2024.

Brier Dudley's SAVE THE FREE PRESS columns are made available for free to the public and to other newspapers for their use — to build awareness of the local journalism crisis and potential solutions. The entire body of work is viewable here:

Dysfunction reigns and attention is turning to elections and summer break.

Meanwhile layoffs, consolidation and closures continue and may accelerate this year as news outlets large and small struggle to find footing, online and off, as their advertising and subscription businesses are disrupted.

“I think it’s going to be a potentially rough year,” said Zach Metzger, director of the State of Local News Project at Northwestern University’s Medill School, which tracks newspaper closures.

A few states have stepped up with tax credits and other proposals modeled on journalism bills stalled in Congress.

The regional support is encouraging, the policies show what’s possible and they raise awareness of the crisis.

But this is a national problem that demands a federal solution. Congress cannot be lulled into thinking it will be solved by states.

The nation’s deep divides, loss of shared understanding and toxic partisanship will worsen if just a handful of prosperous blue states have healthy local newspapers.

New York in April approved $30 million per year worth of tax credits to help save newsroom jobs. Illinois legislators approved a similar, $25 million package last month but as of Thursday morning it wasn’t yet signed by the governor.

California legislators are considering a $500 million tax credit program, funded by a new tax on tech giants extracting users’ personal information, but it was still awaiting a Senate vote as of Thursday.

Washington state last year exempted publishers from its business and occupation tax, a move expected to save jobs by reducing news outlets’ tax burden by $10 million over 10 years.

Two thirds of the local newspaper industry is gone and the mostly skeletal remainders are seeing more downsizing.

As the white-shoe press fretted last week about palace intrigue at The Washington Post, nearly half the newspapers in Oregon were sold or put up for sale, dozens of journalists lost their jobs and five papers are closing.

“It’s a struggling industry,” said Heidi Wright, chief operating officer of Salem-based EO Media, a fourth-generation publisher that’s selling because it doesn’t think it can survive another economic downturn.

“If people care about having vetted, credible, relevant content produced by people who live in their communities and know the people, we’ve got to figure out a path forward,” she said.

Wright believes the only way to continue having substantial local journalism is with a combination of sustainable business operations, philanthropy and legislation.

As I wrote in Thursday’s column, another group of Oregon papers was acquired by Carpenter Media Group, a Southern chain that bought Washington’s Sound Publishing in March.

The day after announcing its Oregon deal, Carpenter informed the union at Sound’s flagship paper, the Everett Herald, that layoffs will be announced in the coming week.

This bloodletting could have been avoided.

Congress has sat for more than two years on straightforward, relatively low cost bills that would stop the bleeding and stabilize the industry.

There’s bipartisan support for tax credits to save newsroom jobs nationally, and for an antitrust measure that would bolster outlets’ business prospects, by helping them negotiate fair compensation by tech giants profiting from their work.

Yet the tax credits are “unlikely this year,” said Dean Ridings, CEO of America’s Newspapers, a trade group that’s lobbying for them.

Ridings now hopes to see Congress advance the credits, in the Community News and Small Business Support Act, in the first quarter of next year.

“Something could change and we hope to continue to gain momentum so that we’re ready, should that happen,” he said.

Publishers are telling Ridings that business is challenging.

“Just like you’ve seen in Oregon and other places,” he said. “There are a few bright spots here and there but the business is tough.”

Ridings said lawmakers he talks to are seeing how their communities are affected by the decline and loss of local newspapers. The holdup is because of overall dysfunction in Washington, D.C.

“It’s very hard to get anything done,” he said. “While we in our industry believe this is a priority, and I do believe it’s a priority for the sake of our country, there are multiple priorities. Unfortunately none of them are really being managed like they should be, there’s just so much dysfunction.”

Meanwhile the patient is bleeding out, waiting for an ambulance that’s taking the scenic route.

Brier Dudley on Twitter: @BrierDudley is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative. Its weekly newsletter: Reach him at


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