The Best Local News Sustainability Bill

by Steven Waldman | June 30, 2021
7 min read
chart documenting loss of journalism jobs
Thousands of communities have no reporters covering the basics of local journalism. If enacted, the Sustainability Act would provide resources to prevent Sierra County from joining the ranks of the under-informed. Source: Rebuild Local News

Editor’s Note: The author of this piece is a coordinator of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, advocates for structural government tax support of news media, providing that the federal support does not come at the cost of media independence. Waldman argues that the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, reintroduced this month in the U.S. House of Representatives, will go a long way toward bolstering the financial health of local news publications and media through three proposed tax credits. The Sun is republishing Waldman’s column to educate Sierra Countians about this potentially transformative legislation that could ensure the ongoing operation of the Sun and other local public-interest watchdogs across the country.

Rebuilding local news will require a massive effort that must include a significant increase in philanthropic support, loads of innovation in the news business—and, yes, some help from the government.

The government policy element has long been a bit of a riddle. The collapse of local news has been devastating to democracy and the health of communities but it’s no easy task to design policies that would help without endangering editorial independence.

That’s why I’m so excited about the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which was just reintroduced this month by U.S. Representatives Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ). 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 relies on a series of tax credits that help consumers buy local news subscriptions or donate to nonprofit news organizations; help newsrooms bear the payroll costs of retaining journalists; and help small businesses to buy advertising in local media.  

In general, the bill: 

  • Focuses entirely on local news (where the crisis is acute). No benefits for national media.
  • Helps local news by amplifying the choices of consumers and small businesses, rather than having the government pick winners and losers
  • Is strictly nonpartisan and guards against government favoritism or manipulation of media
  • Helps small media as well as larger players, nonprofits as well as commercial models, including communities of color and rural areas
  • Helps a variety of platforms, including digital-first websites as well as newspapers, radio and TV
  • Is based in the tax code and is therefore not subject to annual appropriations process or limits
  • Would help create a stronger, more inclusive local news system in the future, not merely prop up existing players.

OK, now I’m going to dive deep into the weeds. The devil is always in the details. 

1) Tax credit of up to $250 each year for subscriptions or donations to local news. 

For subscriptions, the credit covers 80 percent of subscription costs in the first year and 50 percent in subsequent four years. To receive the full $250 credit, a subscriber would have to spend at least $312.50 in the first year, and $500 each of the following four years. This is so the taxpayer has some “skin in the game.”

A donation to a nonprofit news organization mostly becomes a tax credit (which is subtracted, below the line, from your final tax bill) instead of a less-beneficial tax deduction (which is subtracted from your taxable income). The amounts work the same way: if you donate $312.50, you would get a $250 credit.

There are several things I like about this. First, instead of a government agency picking newsrooms to support–what could possibly go wrong with that?–it amplifies the buying power of residents. It’s sort of like the charitable deduction that way. You can imagine local newsrooms promoting this benefit in the community as part of subscription or donation drives.

Second, it could really goose digital subscriptions, which most local news leaders believe are the only way that local news can become sustainable. We don’t want legislation that just ladles water into sinking ships. We want to create incentives for a better, more inclusive, more durable model.

One item I might change  in this proposal is that the tax credit is not refundable. That means while many newsrooms will indirectly benefit, the only taxpayers who would benefit would be those who pay federal taxes and itemize. If we believe that we should be helping Americans be better informed, that benefit should be offered to all residents, regardless of income.

 (Fantasy digression: In a perfect world, this might even be a voucher. Imagine if you’re going through your taxes and could just allot the money to newsrooms, which would then get a check from the IRS!)

2) Payroll tax for journalists

News organizations would get a benefit of up to $25,000 in the first year and $15,000 per journalist in years 25 to help cover the salaries of journalists.  

This goes right at the problem, that the business models don’t support the labor-intensive types of journalism. The number of newspaper reporters has dropped 60 percent since 2000. Thousands of communities have no reporters covering the basics of local government. 

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.

3) Refundable tax credit to small businesses to advertise in local news

Local small businesses could get up to $5,000 credit for advertising in local newsrooms in the first year and $2,500 in years 25. I could easily imagine community media organizations rallying together to make sure that businesses know about this benefit, and making the case that small and hyperlocal media should be among the biggest beneficiaries.

While the first two benefits relate only to newspapers and news websites, this tax credit could also be spent on local TV and radio. In addition to helping local news, it will also help many small businesses get back on their feet as they try to recover from COVID-19.

What’s the definition of a local newsroom and a journalist?

One of the hardest parts of crafting policies about journalism is deciding which news organizations would qualify without having to set up some elaborate bureaucratic mechanism or licensing system. There may be room for improvement, but this bill gets it quite close. Here are the definitions provided in the bill along with my comments:

Strangely, the bill defines a local “newspaper” as a “print or digital publication” that also meets these tests:

“The primary content of such publication is original content derived from primary sources and relating to news and current events.”

I think I like the “original content” provision, which would knock out pure aggregators. 

“Such publication primarily serves the needs of a regional or local community.” 

They should change this to “primarily covers a local or regional community or a state.”

“The publisher of such publication employs at least one local news journalist who resides in such regional or local community.”

This would provide a modest guard against “ghost newspapers” that provide no original reporting

“The publisher of such publication employs not greater than 750 employees.”

Sorry New York Times and Washington Post.

For purposes of the employment tax credit, a local “journalist” means someone who works at a local “newspaper” (see definition above) and who: “Regularly gathers, collects, photographs, records, writes, or reports news or information that concerns local events or other matters of local public interest.”

This seems to be a relatively modern definition.

One question has been what, if anything, should a government approach do to avoid scuzzy pay-for-play websites, or news sites that are set up by dark-money political operations. Ideally, we’d rather that this money not go to them—but we also don’t want government officials making micro-judgments about quality. The focus on subscriptions actually helps with this a bit. None of these “pink slime” newsrooms have subscriptions (because people wouldn’t pay for it), so they wouldn’t be eligible for the first credit.

The bill can and should be improved as it goes along its way. But this is an outstanding place to begin.   

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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