New York State can help save community news
At first blush it might be hard to believe that New York – the news media capital of the United States – has a shortage of news. But it does – and its rapidly reaching crisis levels.
The key is that we’re talking about local news, not national news. While national news is economically thriving, community journalism is in a free fall – especially in New York. In 2004, New York boasted 439 weekly papers and 62 daily papers. By 2019, we had just 249 weeklies and 54 dailies. As a result, New York newspapers have lost 67% of their circulation – tied for the most in the nation.
Among the New York papers that have closed: the Journal-Register in Medina, NY, the Towanda News, Hoy in New York City, the Ontario Post, Monroe Post South, the Wayne Post, the St. Lawrence Plaindealer, The Carthage Republican Tribune and the South Jeff Journal in Adams, NY.
This is part of a national trend, which has seen thousands of papers close – an average of two per week. Almost 60% of the newspaper newsroom positions have disappeared. Fewer reporters mean less coverage, or more superficial coverage.
While we have more and more news about national politics, New Yorkers from Wawayanda to the Bronx have less information about schools, health care and other matters of importance.
Anecdotally we are seeing what has also been proven through national studies: communities with less local news have more polarization, more waste, higher municipal borrowing costs, and eventually more corruption.
Just as important, these local news sources help bind a community together. They may not win Pulitzers but we are all enriched and inspired by the stories about the high school basketball team’s upset victory, the community theater’s latest production, the local resident who made America’s Got Talent, the humungous prize-winning pumpkin or the couple celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary. Local news helps neighbors to better know each other.
What’s worse, the vacuums being created by the contraction of local news are now being filled – rapidly – but toxic forces: social media, conspiracy theories, national partisan news and, increasingly politically-funded dark money websites pretending to be local news.
For all these reasons, we need to act quickly to shore up community news.
The reasons for all this are fairly simple. The Internet upended the local news business model by sucking away local advertisers (and in many cases putting the local businesses themselves out of business). Print advertising in newspapers declined by 71% between 2000 and 2012. More recently, for print publications, inflation has led to major increases in the price of newsprint and delivery services.
Local news organizations – both legacy newspapers and new digital startups – are working feverishly to reinvent themselves. The goal is to not just survive but ultimately create a local news system that will be more responsive to the community. More and more philanthropic organizations are stepping forward to help as well.
But the scale and speed of this collapse are so enormous that neither philanthropy nor incremental business model improvements will come close to staunching the bleeding. This is one of those cases – like schools and libraries and hospitals – when the government must play a role.
Governor Hochul and the New York State legislature in the next week are two will decide on a proposal to provide a 5-year bridge for local newsrooms by helping them retain or hire local reporters, photographers and editors. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Carrie Woerner and Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal – and which has bipartisan support – provides news organizations with a payroll tax credit of up to half the salary up to $50,000. It could help preserve or encourage local news jobs.
The incentives are shrewd. News organizations that lay off reporters will get less; those that invest in community journalism will get more. And there’s a strong firewall to prevent any elected officials from trying to use government funds to reward or punish news outlets. We expect, in fact, that this bill would lead to more accountability reporting, not less.
New York has wisely decided that helping one form of media – the motion picture industry – is well worth it to New York’s economy. Indeed, the tax credit for filmmaking has been a huge success. A much smaller version can help save something else that’s important to democracy – the civic health of New York’s communities.
Steven Waldman, a longtime resident of Brooklyn, is co-founder of Report for America, Rebuild Local News, and The Brooklyn Game.
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