By Steven Waldman
If you’re reading the Haitian Times, you already value journalism that covers vital topics of importance. What you may not realize is that publications like this superb one have been in a deep crisis around the country.
During the past two decades, the number of newspaper reporters has dropped by 36,000 or 60%. Some 1,800 communities have lost newspapers. News deserts and “ ” — newsrooms so desolate that they don’t truly cover the town — abound across the country, especially in rural areas and communities of color.
This is a serious threat to our communities. Too often, the local news vacuums are being filled by social media, partisan hyperbole, and harmful disinformation. Without good, accurate information, families cannot make good decisions for themselves — and communities cannot solve their own problems.
Rebuilding local news will require a massive effort that must include a significant increase in philanthropic support (and we’re proud to support the Haitian Times by providing two Report for America journalists.
But philanthropy will not be enough. Community news organizations need some (smart) help from the government — and Senator Schumer, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and our other representatives are in a unique position to make it happen.
Government help, you might ask? How on Earth can newsrooms take money from the government? Isn’t that like the muckrakers taking money from the muckmakers?
Fortunately, there is a shrewd way to help save local news without excessively involving the government. It’s called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. This clever, bipartisan bill would provide more help for local news than any time in about a century, yet it’s done in a very First-Amendment-friendly way.
It helps small media as well as larger players, nonprofits as well as commercial models, digital and print, communities of color and rural areas. The key provisions are:
- credit of up to $250 for consumers to buy newspaper subscriptions or make donations to nonprofit local news organizations.
- A refundable payroll tax credit of up to $25,000 for local news organizations for journalists
- A tax credit of up to $5,000 for small businesses that advertise with local news publishers.
Because it’s a tax credit, there’s no government agency picking journalism projects. It’s akin to the Postal Subsidy implemented by the Founding Fathers. We think this will be particularly good for publications covering communities of color. They do not have to hire an expensive lobbyist in Washington; they just have to do local reporting, in which case they would qualify automatically.
The refundable tax credit for small businesses to advertise has two beneficiaries, the newsroom and the small business which basically gets free marketing money. Haitian-run businesses in Brooklyn, Miami or other communities would essentially get almost $5,000 to advertise their services, as long as it’s through community media.
The payroll tax credit goes right at a core problem — that the current business models don’t support labor-intensive types of journalism. This tax credit could change the dynamics within newsrooms by making the hiring or retaining of journalists relatively more appealing. Because it’s a payroll tax break, rather than an income tax break, it is also available for nonprofit organizations.
The crisis in local journalism is a crisis for communities. We urge Senator Schumer, Rep. Jeffries and our other representatives to get this into the big budget bill currently before Congress.
This bill is not just a stop-gap but rather would help create a stronger, more inclusive local news system in the future, with publications like the Haitian Times playing a central role for decades to come.
Steven Waldman is coordinator of the Rebuild Local News Coalition and also co-founder and president of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
RFA is a partner organization of The Haitian Times that provides funding support for staff members accepted into the program.