How Can Local Media Face The News Crisis?
Photo: Ethnic Media Services
By Selen Ozturk
As devastating layoffs and growing news deserts fuel uncertainty about the future of journalism, what can save local media? On February 2 Ethnic Media Services briefing, local news policy advocates and ethnic media publishers shared their views on the role of local journalism against the growing news crisis and discussed legislative policies to rescue local journalism:
The crisis in local news is accelerating nationwide, said Steven Waldman, founder and president of Rebuild Local News and co-founder and former president of Report for America.
An annual State of Local News report from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism found that the loss of local newspapers accelerated to two and a half per week in 2023, leaving over 200 counties as “news deserts” and over half of U.S. counties with limited access to reliable local news, with another 228 counties at “high risk” of losing local news.
Although there is a consensus that “government support should not be the primary support for news” as this can potentially “undermine independence of the press, we’re seeing that some policies are clearly needed,” said Waldman.
Advertising to local newspapers declined 82% — a $40 billion drop — since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center.
One such policy is government-backed advertising more heavily invested in local journalism.
In New York City, for example, the City Council passed a CUNY proposal that half the advertising money the city spent would benefit community media, which led to a $9.9 million shift of funds for the sector — nearly 84% of the city’s total print and ad budget.
Other such policies include tax credit proposals, said Waldman.
On the state level, this involves tax credits for small businesses that advertise in local news. Federally, the Community News and Small Business Support Act (HR-4756), which is currently in Congress, is an employment tax credit of up to $25,000 per head for editorial staff.
The Australian-Canadian model
One major proposal is a bargaining code requiring tech platforms like social media/companies to compensate news organizations for use of content: in Canada this takes the form of the Online News Act (C-18) passed in 2022, and in Australia, the News Media Bargaining Code passed in 2021.
Ryan Adam, Vice President of Government and Public Relations for the Toronto Star — Canada’s largest newspaper — said, “You see now with the LA Times and Washington Post layoffs, having a benevolent rich owner isn’t enough. And that’s because the business model for news is broken on the advertising side.”
“80% of our own revenue used to come from ads and 20% from subscriptions,” he continued, “but in the last 15 years, with the ability of Google and Meta to use our content to drive advertising, a great deal of that 80% has gone.”
Now, three years into the Australian bill, “tech platforms are holding up their end of some lucrative content deals. Revenue bleeding has stopped, and people are starting to think of journalism as a growing industry,” said Adam, who advocated for the passage of the Canadian bill modeled upon its Australian predecessor.
Likewise for the Canadian model, he added, “A lack of any government-independent news is not built to last, because governments can change. What is built to last is some of the biggest companies in the world recognizing the value of the content they’re using, through compensating journalists with revenue from ads run by sharing that news. I think it’s the best-case scenario.”
U.S. tech content bills
These bills set an international precedent for two similar U.S. tech-content bargaining bills: the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (S-1094) currently in Congress on the federal level and the Journalism Protection Act (AB-886) in California, which is set to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee around early June.
Brittney Barsotti, General Counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association tracking media bills including AB 886, said despite criticisms that tech compensation will simply benefit hedge funds or large national news organizations, “We have around 450 publications throughout California and over 90% are small businesses… the money they’d get is based on how much content is displayed; it’s not a link tax.”
Regardless, she continued, due to the Dormant Commerce Clause and the First Amendment, “we can’t do content-based deals,” e.g. for ethnic media specifically. However, tweaks to the bill like headcount-based money distribution and guaranteed minimums for small publishers could mitigate these concerns.
“Some advocate for philanthropy, but we’d need up to $1.75 billion to adequately supply local news nationwide,” Barsotti added. “It won’t solve the crisis, because the crisis is based on major platforms dominating ad space.”
Ethnic media surviving
Martha Aszkenazy — owner and publisher of the bilingual and over century-old San Fernando Valley Sun for the past 21 years — said due to this domination, “since the day that I’ve owned the paper, it’s always been a struggle.”
“I rely primarily on display ads, with 30% of these public notices,” she continued. “We’re free partly because the community I serve doesn’t have that extra money, but if I’m still generating money for the platforms that share us, I want my fair share.”
“It’s hard for people on those platforms to figure out what’s true or fake news, because it’s only through external media that fake news is addressed,” said Cora Orie, publisher, and president of the fully ad-dependent national Filipino publication Asian Journal. “We are the guardians of the truth in our society, and truth will die with our demise.”
Nakia Cooper — Bayou Beat News publisher, Houston Association of Black Journalists president and Houston Ethnic Media communications director — said while print publications are fighting to survive, “I have a digital outlet with Bayou too — but as a local Black publisher, I’m still a little guy against the big guys. Big advertisers talk about inclusive, equitable support and come to local news when they need us, but I haven’t seen that support.”
“They say everyone has a voice, but it’s the age of misinformation — especially on these digital platforms,” she added. “What are we doing to make sure journalists trained to vet misinformation are players in the game?”