GoErie: Casey, Toomey should step up for local journalism

Because we believe that transparency breeds accountability, we frequently use this space to challenge those in power to communicate honestly and directly with the citizens who pay their salaries.

If we’re going to chastise those who fail to operate in full view of the public, we owe it to our readers to be straight with them.

The 14 newspapers that constitute the USA Today Network in Pennsylvania, including the one you’re reading right now, remain committed carrying out a dual mission — to deliver the local and regional news that matters most to you, and to ensure government leaders are answerable to the people.

We’re proud of the work that our dedicated journalists are doing here and around the commonwealth.

Yet, these are challenging times for our industry and there isn’t a media company on Earth that hasn’t been, at best, slowed — and at worst blown completely off course — by tough political and economic headwinds.

Today we ask, not for a bailout or a permanent leg-up, but for a five-year tax credit to shepherd newsrooms across the nation through a time of transition as more and more news consumers migrate to online platforms. We ask for passage of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act which has been introduced in both the U.S. House (H.R.3940) and U.S. Senate (S.2434).

Let’s be frank. There are some who perceive media companies to be partisan, out-of-touch purveyors of “fake news” that don’t deserve a government lifeline. This editorial may not change their minds.

But those detractors should know that, for starters, this legislation only applies to “local” news media, defined in the bills as publishers employing fewer than 1,000 workers. The New York Times, CNN and MSNBC need not apply.

Some of our critics like to point to polls that show declining trust in the news media. To them, we’ll say this: Some of the best and brightest journalists we know have left the field due to buy-outs, layoffs and concerns for the industry as a whole. Addressing those issues will keep those smart, talented people working in journalism. That can only improve the product and bolster people’s trust in it.

So we’re glad the bill provides “a news journalist compensation credit” that’s designed to help companies that keep journalists employed by offering a tax credit of up to $12,500 per quarter — $50,000 per year — based on a percentage of the wages it pays to news staff. We believe this will help newspapers maintain — or even add — staff.

The assistance that the Local Journalism Sustainability Act furnishes would benefit non-journalists, too. The bill also makes local businesses who advertise in newspapers and other media eligible for tax credits of up to $5,000 the first year and $2,500 per year for the next four years.

And, for newspaper readers, the bill would create a tax credit of up to $250 per year to offset the cost of having a newspaper subscription.

Since the COVID pandemic began, 37,000 journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had their pay cut. And since 2004, more than 1,800 communities have lost their local newspapers, creating “news deserts” that aren’t served by a local paper.

These trends shouldn’t just disturb those of us who make a living in this industry. They should also concern the local businesses that rely on newspapers to deliver their advertising messages and the people who turn to them for information about candidates running for office, analysis of newly passed bills, updates on municipal, school board and zoning matters, high school sports coverage, business openings and closings, and other news they can use.

A strong local newspaper helps cultivate an informed community. We thank the bills’ 45 Democratic co-sponsors in the U.S. House — including Philadelphia’s Dwight Evans — and its dozen Republican co-sponsors — including Bucks County’s Brian Fitzpatrick.

We do wonder why Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey isn’t among the 11 Democrats in the U.S. Senate who’ve signed on to the bill. Casey has long been an advocate for open government and local journalism. We urge him — and Sen. Pat Toomey, for that matter — to lend not only support but also leadership to the job of preserving a key weapon in the fight for transparency and accountability.