Two new bills in Congress propose a helping hand for a hurting industry

Congressman Mark DeSaulnier on the House floor on April 2, 2019.

As the news industry continues to suffer layoffs and sinking profits, efforts are afoot in Congress to lend a hand. In recent months, two bills have been introduced that aim to help publications reassert themselves amid a challenging market, and a group of congress members, lead by Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat from California, have dedicated themselves to seeking further solutions.

In the early 1990s, when DeSaulnier was a city council member in Concord, California—a Bay Area city, northeast of San Francisco—he recalls tough reporters in the front row at every council meeting. Those reporters knew local politics inside and out, DeSaulnier says. As the years passed—and DeSaulnier graduated to mayor, to the Contra Costa County board of supervisors, and in the mid-2000s to state senator—he saw both the quantity and the quality of local journalists dwindle, even as the Bay Area’s population was expanding rapidly. “I went from answering really intelligent questions to having to tell reporters where they could find things on the county website,” DeSaulnier says.

Today, DeSaulnier represents California’s 11th congressional district in Washington, DC, but local news remains front-of-mind. “I really despair,” he says. “There need to be critical writers out there, with the time to stay at it.” As the Bay Area news scene continued to deteriorate, it struck DeSaulnier that Congress might be able to help.

Last year, DeSaulnier formed The Working Group on Saving Local News. It includes David Cicilline, of Rhode Island; Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, of Colorado; Jamie Raskin, of Maryland; and Zoe Lofgren, also of California, all Democrats. They have solicited expertise from a variety of media trade associations and publishers to help get their heads around the extent of the challenges outlets face. In April, the group introduced a resolution recognizing the importance of local journalism and hosted a special session on the House floor to highlight the issue, during which several members explained how declines in local news have impacted their districts.

DeGette, who represents the Denver area, lamented how, in a short few years, The Denver Post, has downsized from 250 staffers to less than 100, while other Denver papers had closed outright. In other Colorado counties, she said, no newspaper exists at all. “For the sake of our democracy, we need our local newspapers, we need our local reporters, we need our watchdogs doing what they do best,” DeGette said. “We need to find ways to protect our local news outlets and help them thrive.”

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The group has also explored legislative steps that might help reverse the decline. One bill—in the spotlight this week due to a House investigation into big tech companies that began Tuesday—seeks to empower news outlets to push back against the likes of Google and Facebook, on the premise that those companies have cut too deeply into the news industry’s advertising revenue.

Called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, the bill—which was introduced by Cicilline, with DeSaulnier and Doug Collins, a Republican congressman from Georgia, as co-sponsors—would establish a 48-month “safe harbor” from antitrust regulations, during which news outlets would be allowed to negotiate collectively for more equitable financial terms with the companies that now so often serve as gatekeepers to their content, while also raking in the lion’s share of online advertising revenue. (Earlier this week, the News Media Alliance, a trade association representing some 2,000 print and digital media publishers and a prominent proponent of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, came under fire for likely overstating how much big tech companies make on the backs of news publishers; that controversy notwithstanding, experts say it is incontrovertibly true that a tremendous amount of ad money that once would have gone to news outlets now goes to those companies.)

Another bill, The Saving Local News Act, which was introduced by DeSaulnier last week, would amend existing nonprofit legislation to make it easier for news organizations to achieve nonprofit status—a move that has helped some legacy publications, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to DeSaulnier’s staff, news organizations presently have to prove that they serve an educational benefit in their application to become a 501(c)(3); this revision would define news itself as a sufficient public good to qualify for special status. The bill additionally proposes that outlets that take advantage of this opportunity be allowed to count future advertising revenue as non-taxable income.

Admittedly, the bills take a somewhat oblique approach to the news industry’s woes. The second bill, in particular, is designed to allow newsrooms greater freedom in financing themselves. But it also sidesteps First Amendment issues: bills meet with limited success, DeSaulnier says, when they broach questions of what kind of speech should be supported—which outlets should benefit from these bills. To avoid subjective judgements that might be easily challenged in court, the bills cast wide nets in their definitions of what constitutes a news provider. (That is, they do not take up distinctions between traditional news providers and ones that are partisan.) The limited leeway has also seen some would-be bright ideas—such as a tax incentive for news outlets with majority local ownership—nipped in the bud, DeSaulnier says.

Garnering widespread support in Congress might also prove a challenge. “As you would imagine, there are some politicians who don’t mind seeing the demise of local journalism,” DeSaulnier says. Republican support, in other words, is not likely to be easily forthcoming, despite having Collins as a co-sponsor on one bill. And even if the bills are successful in the House, it is not clear what their fate will be in the Senate—a counterpart to the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act has been introduced in that chamber, under the sponsorship of Louisiana’s John Kennedy, a Republican, and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat—much less on the desk of a president whose attacks on the press continue unabated.

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From the media industry, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act has garnered both enthusiasm—from The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, among others—and criticism.

Bill Grueskin, a longtime editor and now an expert in the business of journalism at Columbia Journalism School, says government intervention is welcome, given the news industry’s state of decline. On the proposed legislation, specifically, he offers a mix of praise and skepticism. Any effort to help news organizations strike a better deal with big tech is worth a shot. But the idea that those organizations, even together, will have a particularly strong hand to play against Google or Facebook strikes Grueskin as unlikely. Historically, he adds, when news organizations come together in joint ventures their efforts are typically fraught and short-lived. “The prospect of a uniform banding together of disparate news organizations, run by everything from big, profitable cable companies to private equity firms and individual owners, is going to be really difficult,” Grueskin says. As for the Saving Local News Act, Grueskin says nonprofit status can be helpful but is not a magic pill for the pressures facing the news industry. The bill’s success, he says, is likely to depend on the willingness of outlet’s owners to let publications go, however slimly profitable they might be.

DeSaulnier, for his part, says that in the coming months, he and other members of the working group plan on forging relationships with journalism schools and industry stakeholders across the country to solicit more ideas that might prove a boost. “I view news as a consumer, as a source sometimes, and as a subject,” he says. “We need to hear from people who view it differently.”

Dan Borenstein, a Bay Area journalist who serves on the editorial board of the East Bay Times, tells CJR that the congressman is sincere in his commitment to supporting the news industry. “I’m not sure that he, any more than anyone else, sees a clear path forward, but he certainly sees the importance of preserving local journalism,” Borenstein, who has covered DeSaulnier for the better part of two decades, says. The East Bay Times represents a consolidation of multiple Bay Area newspapers, including the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune. Borenstein says he’s glad for Congress’s support but hopes that an ailing industry will exercise caution in how much help it is willing to accept. “We need to make sure that whatever support we seek doesn’t make us beholden to government,” he says. “We have to maintain our independence.”

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Andrew McCormick is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.