Who will the Local Journalism Sustainability Act serve?

Bipartisan Congressional support continues to build for The Local Journalism Sustainability Act,  a bill introduced in both the House and the Senate that aims to help shore up the local news business. The legislation would provide public funding for local news through tax credits offered to subscribers, businesses who advertise in local publications, and newsrooms themselves, with a payroll credit to compensate reporters. It’s the first proposed federal intervention for the local news industry to gain traction in more than fifty years, and it’s earned endorsements from local newsrooms and national publications alike. But existing—as it does—within a system that fails marginalized groups time and again, does this new legislation address the deep inequities inherent in local journalism?

Tracie Powell, principal and founder of The Pivot Fund, a venture philanthropy aimed at providing financial support for community news organizations led by people of color, has criticized several elements of the bill for failing to consider the information habits of historically marginalized groups. The legislation’s emphasis on subscriptions ignores publications that aren’t subscription-based, Powell wrote in August, and the tax credits for advertisers do little to incentivize advertising in publications that currently see little to no advertising revenue. Outlets that rely on contractors or freelance labor are also limited in their ability to make use of payroll credits. These elements limit assistance to many media outlets aiming to serve communities of color, Powell says.

Government intervention often sustains the status quo, perpetuating systemic bias, Powell argues further, pointing to the founding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for one example, which took years to address the complaints of racial minority groups who were being excluded from the funding pipeline. We saw what happened when they didn’t talk to all the people needed to be at the table,” Powell told CJR. “I’m raising the flag and saying, Hey, we’re doing it again. We’re leaving out these key communities.

At the same time, there are legacy local outlets in the Black press whose business models do align more fully with the sort of newsrooms that the bill imagines. In late August, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association—an association of more than two hundred Black-owned news organizations—wrote a public letter in support of the measure. (The National Association of Hispanic Publishers also expressed support for the bill).

Chavis told CJR that he considers this legislation a “significant step forward,” though he acknowledges that the bill has limitations. “We come down on the side that it’s important to take the step forward, even if there are additional steps to come.”

Many community-journalism practitioners agree that there’s value in passing this particular legislation, as long as lawmakers, journalists, and industry leaders acknowledge those additional steps.

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“The bill could help put more journalists on the ground and more money in the pockets of small local news outlets, which are benefits,” Darryl Holliday, co-founder and News Lab director at Chicago’s civic journalism lab, City Bureau, said. “But my understanding is that it doesn’t fundamentally address the underlying problems, why communities don’t get the information they need.”

Mike Rispoli, Senior Director of Journalism Policy at press advocacy group Free Press, agreed, calling this bill “one of the better ones” that stands before Congress. Still, he says, it’s a stopgap measure, and though it may have an immediate and positive effect in helping some communities get the information they need, it won’t address the root of the problem. Instead, it will prop up traditional financial models and benefit some of the bad actors—like hedge funds—that bear responsibility for the local information crisis. “I’m hopeful that instead of closing the door, it actually opens up a much bigger conversation about what’s actually needed,” Rispoli said.

“The status quo is not working,” said Madeleine Bair, founder of El Tîmpano, an Oakland-based outlet for local Mayan and Latinx immigrants. “We need innovation from news outlets, from philanthropy, and from public policies that challenge the status quo and the systems that have upheld it, and that support a new way of doing things.”

Powell, for her part, believes that this bill itself has the potential to create systemic change: “we’ve just got to be willing to do the work to get it there.”

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

 

NOTE: A previous version of this article identified Mike Rispoli as the News Voices director at Free Press. The article has been updated to indicate that Rispoli is now the Senior Director of Journalism Policy.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites