Layoffs of at least 115 Los Angeles Times journalists last week prompted a furious letter from 10 members of Congress and a national outcry.
Other members called for protecting the press when the House advanced a new press shield law on Jan. 18.
Yet as this was happening, smaller newspapers were closing entirely.
Two or three more will fail this week, the week after that, and on through the year as the death spiral of America’s local press system accelerates.
More than 40,000 newsroom jobs were lost over the last two decades and roughly a third of the country’s newspapers are gone, leaving millions of voters with little to no local news. This comes as AI supercharges the creation of fake news, elections approach and trust in democratic institutions is under assault.
If those 10 members of Congress want to help, they should immediately start working to pass two critical journalism bills held up in Washington, D.C.
The bills have bipartisan support, are relatively inexpensive and propose solutions proven to work. They just haven’t been enough of a priority to get done.
One would provide tax credits to save newsroom jobs. The other would help news outlets get fairly compensated by tech giants profiting from their work.
Had Congress passed these when they were introduced several years ago, they would have saved jobs at the Los Angeles Times and thousands of smaller papers.
The 10 California representatives said good things in their letter to Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, urging him to consider voluntary buyouts instead of layoffs.
“As we approach upcoming elections, the role of news outlets in providing accurate and unbiased information becomes even more vital,” they wrote.
But none of them had signed on to support job-saving tax credits in the Community News and Small Business Support Act, introduced last July.
Only four sponsored the proposal to help newspapers get fairly paid, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, during the previous Congress. Two weren’t yet in office.
Soon-Shiong also noted this inconsistency.
“The irony is that a free press isn’t free,” he said in the paper’s layoff story.
Washington’s delegation gets it, mostly.
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are strong supporters of policies to save the press. Cantwell introduced a Senate version of the tax credits in 2021.
“Congress should do absolutely everything it can to save local news,” Murray said via email. “At end of the day, local newspapers are more than just local businesses — they’re a vital part of our communities and our democratic system.”
Murray earlier led pension reforms that saved numerous local newspapers and journalists’ jobs.
“Saving local journalism is fundamental to the future of our democracy — when our newspapers close, reduce printing frequency, or become takeover targets by media conglomerates, hedge funds, or private equity companies, our democracy suffers,” she said.
Yakima Valley Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse co-sponsored the original tax credit proposal in 2020. It was supported by state’s entire delegation, except for Spokane Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
I surveyed the delegation to gauge support for saving local news and heard back, positively, from all but Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers.
Medina Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene introduced the Community News bill, with New York Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney, last July.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat, said she’s talking with a Republican colleague about introducing a House version of the JCPA.
“I feel like journalism is something that you should support, no matter which side of the aisle you’re on,” she said.
Jayapal also supports the Community News bill, as an “immediate, short-term solution,” while the JCPA would provide longer-term stability.
Sammamish Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier supports the credits and favors the JCPA approach, after seeing it work in Canada to secure compensation for news outlets.
“You have to pay journalists if you want good journalism,” she said.
Schrier said the loss of local reporting, including in her district, is resulting in people only getting national news.
“And I believe that has contributed to some of the coarseness we are seeing in our country now where everything is becoming nationalized and toxic — local news brings people together,” she said.
Several states are considering or have passed policies to help local journalism. That includes a Washington tax break and a JCPA-like proposal in California.
That’s great, but the problem still demands a federal solution to ensure citizens nationwide are informed, as the Founding Fathers intended when they backed the press in the Constitution and subsidized it, starting with postal subsidies in 1792.
States trying to help are mostly Democratic, even though “the problem is really in many cases the worst in rural, more conservative areas,” said Danny Hayes, a George Washington University professor who documented how the loss of local papers is leaving voters increasingly uninformed and civically disengaged.
For example, Ohio, home of Republican House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, lost 16% of its newspapers last year alone, including 24% of its weeklies, according to Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative. It has lost 54% of its newspapers since 2004 as Washington lost 17%.
Yet building support among Republicans is hard because of a political divide over “the media” in general, Hayes said.
As a result, some “don’t want to be seen as partnering with the media” even if it’s local outlets that help sustain their communities, he said.
“In many ways these are the kinds of policies that Republicans should want to embrace because they’re going to benefit their own constituents,” Hayes said. “But the national politics of it really makes that hard to overcome.”
I’m encouraged by the bipartisan support for the PRESS Act, to better protect reporters and their sources.
“Liberty depends on the freedom of the press and journalists are often the first to expose government fraud, waste, abuse and encroachments on personal freedoms in a free country,” California Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley, a co-sponsor, said on the House floor Jan. 18.
The shield law is needed to extend nationally the sort of protection that journalism already has in states like Washington.
But it’s a bit like upgrading the locks on a house that’s burning down. It’s only the start of what must happen this year if members of Congress value local journalism and want to save what’s left.
This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Sign up to receive it at the Save the Free Press website, st.news/SavetheFreePress. Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley is the editor of the Free Press Initiative, which aims to inform the public about issues facing newspapers, local news coverage, and a free press. You can learn more about the Free Press Initiative, or sign up for a newsletter, at company.seattletimes.com/save-the-free-press.