Senate Report Goes To Bat For Local News; Who’s On Deck?

Most days it feels as if the local news industry has no friends in Washington.

We get battered but get up. We confront “fake news” rants with trusted journalism. And we dig for revenue while the technology giants soak up the great majority of the digital dollars.

This week, local news discovered an ally in Congress who understands newspapers’ dire challenges and makes the excellent case for help.

Our friend is from Washington, state that is.

Press associations should use Sen. Maria Cantwell’s report, “Local Journalism: America’s Most Trusted News Sources Threatened,” to recharge their crucial advocacy.

Download the report here.

It was released ahead of yesterday’s (Oct. 29) Halloween-week appearances by the chiefs of Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc. (Google and YouTube) before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Cantwell is a ranking member.

As caretakers of local journalism and community newspapers, press associations and their members will not be shocked by anything in Cantwell’s official report. Rather, we should revel there’s a definitive record and a call to action that publishers and association leaders can reference when working with legislators — as well supporters and readers.

One of the report’s urgent points is that the public still doesn’t realize the degree to which local news is threatened, or near collapse in some communities.

“These market dynamics are further compounded by a lack of public awareness of the crisis facing local journalism. A recent pool found that 71 percent of Americans believe their local news media is ‘doing well financially,’” the report stated.

Associations would be wise to ensure its members have a copy of Cantwell’s Senate report. (I already spotted some newsletters including a mention and a link.)

Also, our lobbyists should deliver copies to state legislators so they’re aware as well. The report’s Relevant Points apply as state legislatures are additional forums for solutions to be hatched. We all know about the ongoing public notices battles.

If I were still a publisher, I’d consider reprinting the report as a series, with local sidebars about my market.

The history and current state of local journalism come in four chapters:

  • The Key to Public Trust and an Informed Citizenry
  • The Difficult Transition to Digital
  • How Local Journalism Faces Unfair Practices from Online Platforms
  • A Trusted Brand Adapting to the Digital Age

I read the 67-page report (it was a rainy day) and here is a sample of quotes that can be used in campaigns to keep awareness and understanding high on what we face in providing local news. (Look for some of these on the Revenue Resource page in the weeks ahead.)

The first sentence is a good start:
“Local journalism is essential for healthy communities, competitive marketplaces, and a thriving democracy.”

And here’s the problem:
“Unfortunately, the local news industry is being decimated in the digital age. This is due to both to the rapid proliferation of online news content as well as unfair market practices by some of the world’s largest technology companies that reuse local news’ content, data, customers, and advertisers.”

There’s time to help, but…:
“While the value of local journalism as a trusted brand is starting to shine through to advertisers, the economic downtown due to the COVID-19 pandemic is endangering what is left of local journalism.”

And the wake-up call:
“If Americans are to continue to receive the benefits of local journalism — transparency, fact-checking, professional editing, and high-quality and timely reporting that promotes vibrant, cohesive, and diverse communities — local news needs help to to survive the current economic storm.”

The report ends with “Congressional considerations.” It cites three either current or suggested congressional options to save local news:

Providing COVID-19 Emergency Financial Relief: “Congress should renew the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to continue to support jobs at local news outlets. It should also expand the PPP to make thousands more local newspapers, radio, and television broadcasters eligible for emergency federal support. Congress should also consider targeted tax incentives and grants as at least a short-term bridge to enable local news entities to survive the current economic turmoil.”

Ensure Fair Return for Local News Content:
“Congress should consider requiring that news aggregation platforms enter into good faith negotiations with local news organizations and pay them fair market value for their content. Congress should also consider allowing local news organizations for a limited duration to collectively bargain for reuse of their content, provided there are strong controls in place to ensure that smaller publishers are not left behind.”

Level the Playing Field for Local News:
“Congress has a long history of addressing market abuses that stifle innovation and harm consumers. Rules preventing unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices can stop platforms from taking local news content without financial payment and retaliations against local news by hiding or removing their content from search engines or social media feeds.

Similarly, statues that prohibit market manipulation in other industries can serve as models to ensure online advertising markets are transparent and not contrived to benefit a dominant firm. Federal privacy protections can also serve to empower consumers to provide more support to local news organizations that provide them with more trusted and relevant information.

“Each of these changes should be crafted in a way to promote competition and consumer welfare and spur growth and innovation in the digital economy.”

By now, you’re probably looking for a suggested closer to any discussion about the state of local news.

The report’s last paragraph is a bottom line to consider:

“When local newspapers and broadcasters shutter, entire cities are left wanting, and an important long-term relationship of trust and community spirit is lost.”

Here’s to more friends.

– TAS

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