Just as vaccinations help communities emerge from the pandemic, a bill just dropped in Congress aims to help local media and its advertisers recover as well. It is a great example of bipartisan leadership working to preserve a free press while helping small businesses.
This legislation is critical for the Nogales economy and the Nogales International, which is fighting hard to avoid joining the ranks of the more than 2,000 local newspapers across the country that have had to close their doors since 2004.
Where would our residents be without their community newspaper, the Nogales International? Do you think the thinly staffed metro up the road or TV news stations will come to the rescue? Will local radio stations or social media sites pick up the slack? No. Their “local reporting” all too frequently starts with something they read first in the NI. That was the reality even before the pandemic. It happens everywhere there are still community newspapers in existence.
The NI reports on issues that significantly affect our readership, such as active wildfires, COVID-19 developments and crossing restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border. We also publish stories that are meaningful to the community in other ways – youth sports, art exhibits, summer meal schedules, obituaries, and so on. Also, as the adjudicated newspaper in the county, the NI publishes public notices required for new business incorporations, newly enacted or revised local ordinances, zoning changes and other similarly impactful information. Informing the public and holding policymakers accountable has never been more important.
So the answer to the question is, without the NI, residents would be living in a news desert. The loss of local news outlets diminishes not just knowledge of local happenings and politics, but also the ties that bind communities. It curtails civility and engagement in democracy and the community becomes a breeding ground for fake news or at the very least poor, incomplete and inaccurate reporting by others, including government.
Because between 85 and 90 percent of a newspaper’s costs are supported by print advertising, the NI over the past few years has suffered aggressive cuts in expenses, including newsroom positions, due to fewer and fewer local retailers, loss of auto dealerships’ advertising, the general economic contraction during the Great Recession, and now, the pandemic.
Digital revenue solutions are not sufficient to sustain newsrooms like the NI’s. Community newspapers need local print advertisers and subscribers to survive. As that door closes, like many small papers across the country, the 96-year-old NI refuses to give up its legacy and is fighting for its existence looking for alternative revenue streams. This year for example, working with LMA and the Seattle Times, as well as Report for America, it successfully sought out philanthropic funding from various organizations and local readers. While the latter is a solution to pay for specific journalistic endeavors, it hardly covers the nut of running a newspaper.
Realizing the challenges confronting local journalism, U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) in 2020 introduced the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which drew 78 sponsors across party lines (including Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva). Alas, the 116th Congressional session ended before it could be passed.
It was reintroduced June 16, 2021, as HR 3940. It’s not a handout, it’s a temporary lifeline. Under this legislation, subscribers would receive tax credits to pay for up to half the cost of local newspaper subscriptions, publishers would be aided in tax credits to support up to 50 percent of journalists’ salaries in the first year and 30 percent in subsequent years. Finally, small business advertisers (fewer than 50 employees) would be reimbursed for local ads in qualified newspapers – 80 percent of the cost the first year and 50 percent in the subsequent four years, for a credit up to $5,000 the first year and $2,500 in years two-to-four. Not exactly pork barrel funding.
This bill would create some breathing room while more systemic reforms are developed to ensure a dynamic, local free-press system will continue to serve communities across the country.
(Coppola is publisher of the Nogales International. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org (520) 415-1836.)