Government support for local news has been a trending topic lately due to the federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act and its partial inclusion in the Build Back Better Act.
While Congress is considering several bills aimed at helping local news following the overall decline in news across the country, several state legislators have introduced 11 bills that would support local journalism in their states. These bills are more likely to be tailored specifically for their states.
Historically, state-level support for local news has come in the form of public and legal notice requirements. State and local governments have been required to purchase advertising space for notices about public hearings and meetings, regulations and budgets. The need and value of such public notices have come under fire in many states, but they remain a robust form of income for many local news outlets. While some states have attempted to get rid of this requirement, it is still mandated in all 50 states.
In looking at all of the bills that state legislators have filed this year to support local media in addition to public notices, there are three distinct categories: business-related, research-related and general funding support bills.
Types of State Bills Introduced
Of the 11 distinct bills CISLM found, 63% would provide tax relief in the form of credits or exemptions to news organizations, advertisers and/or subscribers; 18% would fund research about local news or introduce advisory committees; about 18% provided direct monetary support.
Wisconsin Representative Todd Novak, a former journalist himself, said local media support in his state looks like giving tax credits to businesses to incentivize local media advertising. This could benefit news organizations that have lost advertisers who moved to social media or national organizations.
While the bill didn’t pass this legislative session because it was introduced late, Novak said he is planning on rolling it out next session.
“We introduced it late knowing that people are going to need time to digest it, but we did have a very good hearing and received a lot of support,” said Novak. “I was really impressed; it was a bipartisan bill.”
Dee Hall, a member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and managing editor of Wisconsin Watch, said the council supports any efforts to make media more sustainable in a time of great shrinkage.
“The FoIC supported it because we feel like it’s one step that the government can take to try to make the news media landscape healthier,” Hall said. “Because as everyone knows right now, it’s really a dire picture in a lot of places in terms of the funding for local news.”
Bills like the one introduced in Wisconsin aim to establish tax credits for local newspaper subscriptions, newspapers themselves and/or local media advertising. These generally provide benefits for all local media in the state, depending on the type of credit. In the case of subscriber tax credits, the consumers pay the news organization directly and receive a tax credit from the state government.
In other states, like New York and Illinois, legislators have introduced bills that would create a commission or task force to research the media environment in their states. The goal is to identify different strategies that would potentially improve the state’s media ecosystem, with the specific aim at creating policy changes.
The New York bill remains in committees. Illinois passed its Local Journalism Task Force Act on Aug. 23, 2021 and created a task force to study communities underserved by local journalism and review all aspects of journalism in the state. After that, the task force will report any legislative recommendations to the state governor and General Assembly.
Jason Piscia, a member of the Illinois task force, said it is important to find new ideas on how the state can boost local newsrooms and help them thrive. The report is due in July 2023, he said.
“(For me) the goal is to give some strong evidence of how bad the local news ecosystem has become in Illinois, especially in rural communities,” Piscia said. “Some people might see that the government created another task force and they’re going to make a report and it’s going to sit on a shelf and no one’s going to care about it — but we’re going to work really hard (so) that’s not the case here.”
California included $10 million of funding for ethnic media in its historic $156.5 million API Equity budget, which was due to the work of the Asian & Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, among others.
“Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, numerous API community members have been victims of hate crimes or incidents,” Assemblymember Evan Low said in a statement. “With the investment, API community would have the tool to prevent hate crimes and incidents. It is wonderful to see this important tool is being applied to protect and enhance our social inclusion.”
The situation in North Carolina
Legislators serving in the North Carolina General Assembly have not introduced any bill that aims to support local journalism.
Additionally, there have been efforts to remove the requirement of publishing public notices in newspapers.
Representative Grier Martin (D-Wake) said that despite the effort to change the notice requirement, many legislators have argued against it, because notices are an important source of revenue.
“Without revenue from the public publishing public notices that they might not survive,” Martin said. “So there has been an awareness of the appreciation of local newspapers that’s played out in the policy here in the General Assembly, at least on a small scale.”
CISLM contacted all 170 North Carolina representatives, and 19 responded. All legislators who spoke to CISLM said they recognize the importance of local journalism in North Carolina.
“Local media is critical for the health of our democracy,” Representative Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) said in a statement. “So many of the issues that impact us are local in nature, which is why we need local media to provide us with timely and accurate information. Much of our news these days is nationalized, and while national news is important, we need to sharpen our focus on what is happening in our communities.”
Of those representatives who spoke with CISLM, most said they had no plans to file, with a handful telling us it would be something to consider after more research.
While Representative Lee Zachary (R-Forsyth, Yadkin) sees local papers as very important to society, he said he worries about where the line would be drawn on who receives support or not.
“You’ve got some papers that really just print the news and they don’t have an agenda, but then you got these other papers that have an agenda and want to keep things stirred up,” Zachary said. “So I think that would make it very difficult from an equal protection standpoint or a freedom of speech standpoint.”
On the other hand, Martin said that at first, he was hesitant because it’s important to have a very independent press, and he’d want to be careful about the government being too deeply involved.
However, he said he is very concerned about the state of local news in North Carolina and he would be open to finding a way for the General Assembly to support local news.
“We want the press to feel 100% free to appropriately challenge the government, and if the government is supporting the press too much that you might not get the benefit,” Martin said. “But I think a tax credit that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of content (or something like that) is worth looking at.”
For a full list of which states have current local news-specific legislation and the bills that have been introduced, see CISLM’s Statewide Local News Bill Tracker.