This week, Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) introduced the Community News and Small Business Support Act (H.R.4756) to the U.S. House of Representatives with co-sponsor Suzan DelBene (D-WA). At its core, the bill lays out a five-year plan to provide payroll tax credits to local/community news outlets, expressly to hire and retain local news reporters across the country. Small businesses (with fewer than 50 employees) that advertise in local newspapers, digital news sites, on local radio or with local TV stations are also eligible for tax credits.
The spirit of this bill builds on what news media publishers know firsthand: A community — the residents and its businesses — suffers without local news representation and local news reporters.
"This bill recognizes that the collapse of local news isn’t just a problem for journalists, it’s a problem for communities and all the businesses that reside in those communities,” according to Steven Waldman, chair, Rebuild Local News Coalition and co-founder of Report for America. You can read Waldman’s op-ed about the bill here.
If you followed the story of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA), you’ll notice some similarities in this bill. Early renditions of the LJSA included both payroll tax incentives for local news publishers and tax credits for small businesses advertising with them.
“During discussions about the LJSA in the 117th Congress, there was recognition of the importance of quality local journalism and the value of a strong local newspaper to the health of the community,” said Dean Ridings, CEO, America’s Newspapers. “Although the LJSA didn’t make the final budget in 2022, there was still a tremendous amount of momentum for it to be reintroduced in this year’s Congress. America’s Newspapers, along with other leading organizations, has been directly engaged in this process and is grateful that the Community News and Small Business Support Act has been introduced.”
At deadline, the final text of the bill hadn’t been posted to the .gov site. But a very recent draft indicated that H.R.4756 would provide payroll tax credits to news media publishers that employ fewer than 750 — a legislative line in the sand that advocates suggest will exclude large national media companies and focus this legislation keenly on local and community news producers. To be eligible, news outlets must create original content that serves the needs of a regional or local community; they must have at least one local journalist on staff; and they cannot be owned or funded by a Political Action Committee (PAC) or 501c4.
Eligible news organizations may apply for tax credits of up to $25,000 per local journalist in the first year and up to $15,000 in the following four years.
“I think the most important thing to stress on the payroll tax credit is that it’s for local, not national news. That’s substantively important, and it’s so important politically,” Waldman said.
Small businesses that advertise with local news outlets, including print, digital, radio and broadcast news — would be eligible for tax credits, as well — up to $5,000 in the bill’s first year and up to $2,500 in each of the subsequent four years.
How much political will is behind H.R.4764?
“The previous LJSA had strong bipartisan support,” America’s Newspapers’ Dean Ridings noted. “The value of a strong local newspaper has nothing to do with party affiliation but meeting a need in the community. We expect that Republicans and Democrats alike will support this bill.”
At Rebuild Local News’ site, there’s a long, growing list of news associations and publishers endorsing the bill, including the National Newspaper Association, The NewsGuild-CWA, National Association of Hispanic Publications, Institute for Nonprofit News, The Afro-American Newspapers, American Journalism Project, PEN America, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and others.
“We applaud Reps. Tenney and DelBene for introducing the Community News and Small Business Support Act and putting the needs of local communities first by supporting local news publishers, who provide critical journalism and information to Americans across the country,” according to a statement to E&P from Danielle Coffey, president and CEO of the News/Media Alliance. “Without vital support, such as tax credits for publishers and local businesses, publishers will not have the resources to continue investing in providing news, and news deserts will continue to grow, making quality local journalism increasingly inaccessible to those who need it and allowing harmful mis- and disinformation to promulgate.”
“It’s critical that local publishers engage with their legislators and community leaders to help them understand the importance of the Act,” America’s Newspapers’ Dean Ridings sounded a rallying cry. “The Act really does benefit the entire community, as healthy newspapers and healthy local businesses go together. America’s Newspapers offers many resources to assist in this process.”
America’s Newspapers has been on the frontlines of advocating for the bill. Asked about the impact he hopes H.R.4756 will have, Ridings remarked, “The credits available for local newspapers to invest in newsrooms will provide immediate support as they continue to evolve the business model. The credits for local businesses that advertise in local newspapers will also pay immediate dividends, allowing small businesses to reach new audiences and grow their businesses. Healthy newspapers and healthy Main Street businesses go hand-in-hand.”
President of The NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, Jon Schleuss, knows firsthand the dire state of many local newsrooms.
“The crisis of local news is a crisis of jobs,” Schleuss told E&P. “Americans lost more than one-quarter of all newsroom employees between 2008 and 2020. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that we will lose another 9% of journalists by 2031. This legislation tackles the employment losses by incentivizing local hiring for journalists. Hiring more local journalists means more local voices and coverage of community news, whether at the school board, the city council or the high school football team. By incentivizing hiring journalists — aka humans — this legislation will also help combat misinformation, which is only getting worse with the rise of artificial intelligence and large language models. The Community News and Small Business Support Act can be an antidote to the dangers of artificial intelligence while also supporting small businesses.”
Schleuss added, “This legislation is common-sense and bipartisan. With the employment cuts in the industry, too many journalists are situated on the coasts and in big cities. We need more local journalists, and we needed them yesterday. A member of Congress would be dumb to oppose a bill that strengthens the First Amendment of our country. My goal is to see it pass this year. We will do everything in our power to make that happen.”
E&P contacted Professor Dan Kennedy with Northeastern University’s School of Journalism to get his take on the bill’s practical and political potential.
“Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I support government assistance for local news outlets, the LJSA strikes me as respecting the traditional independence that journalism needs to hold government and other large institutions accountable,” Kennedy replied in an email. “So, I think there’s a lot of merit to Rep. Tenney’s bill. As Steve Waldman of Rebuild Local News has observed, rewarding publishers for hiring and retaining journalists may incentivize corporate newspaper chains to stop their cost-cutting ways, at least temporarily, and do the right thing. Local news is essential to community life, and the bill may very well boost civic engagement if it ever becomes law.
“That said,” he continued, “I’m not especially optimistic about the prospects for any bill that would help journalism making it through Congress, even if it seems to have bipartisan support at the moment. We’ve seen over and over again that our severely polarized political climate, which I think we have to acknowledge is mainly being driven by the Republican Party’s extreme right wing, makes it nearly impossible to get anything done. None of us would be surprised to see a small number of elected officials come up with a way to derail this proposal. I hope I’m wrong.”
Changing the trajectory
Rebuild Local News’ Steven Waldman estimates that the U.S. needs approximately 25,000 more local news reporters working in the field, but he doesn't see this legislation as being the cure-all. Instead, he views it as part of a larger solution that includes growing philanthropic support for local news and “reforms, changes and innovations” already taking place at newsrooms around the country.
“But the third piece of the puzzle is public policy,” he said. “It could be a key piece to turning it around and helping to create a better local news system.”
“I think if this bill passes, the impact would be profound,” Waldman added. “It would be the federal government’s largest support for local news since President Washington signed the Post Office Act in 1792. I believe it will stop the hemorrhaging and start a turnaround, stimulating and watering these news deserts and creating more local coverage.”
Gretchen A. Peck is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher. She's reported for E&P since 2010 and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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