Opinion Column

Bipartisan bill to boost local news and small businesses needs your support


True confession. I’m a former swamp-dweller.

Not only did I work as a lobbyist, I represented the heathen news media during my eight years as executive director of the Ohio News Media Association before we moved full-time to Holden Beach, North Carolina, in 2019.

Now I’m here to urge you to at least tiptoe into that confusing and often-annoying political swamp by urging your local member of Congress to support a bipartisan bill, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, that throws a much-needed lifeline to community journalism and local businesses.

As a lobbyist, a major part of my job was to help politicians understand that whatever gripes they had with the national media — many of which I share — that was noise and not what we were about. Unlike Don Lemon or Tucker Carlson, local journalists aren’t driven by who’s up or down in the polls or purposely framing stories to satisfy an agenda. They’re just trying to report the news.

Local journalism is in a crisis. Its traditional business model has collapsed, turbocharged in recent months by the pandemic, and communities suffer as a result. The reasons are complicated, ranging from hedge-fund ghouls to the overwhelming influence Facebook and Google exercise over digital ad rates.

The impact isn’t complicated, though. When you have fewer journalists, less stuff gets covered.

Several thousand American counties already have fallen into a previously unimaginable hole called a “news desert.” That means there’s no local media outlet providing a meaningful, credible quantity and quality of local news. There’s research that shows the cost of government goes up in communities that lose newspapers and their watchdog roles.

As a lobbyist, I found it didn’t matter whether I was visiting the most liberal Democrat or even an outspoken media critic and Tea Party firebrand like Jim Jordan of Ohio. Jordan recognized that his hometown paper, the Marysville Tribune, was important to his community. He knew that the New York Times, Fox News or CNN won’t keep an eye on the school board and city council. He knew they won’t cover all the triumphs, achievements and events in his district.  Occasionally they’ll parachute in — as the national media just did when Hurricane Isaias made landfall seven miles from my house — and then they’re gone. 

The Act, co-sponsored by Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat from Arizona, and Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Washington State, offers tax relief to small businesses, subscribers and the local papers over a five-year period as follows:

  • If you subscribe to a qualifying local paper (including its website), you can get a tax credit of up to $250 per year.
  • Businesses with less than 1,000 employees can get a credit of up to $5,000 in advertising costs the first year and up to $2,500 in the next four years. This matters a lot for many small businesses as they reopen. I know from my years as a media executive that many local businesses woefully underbudget what they need to spend on marketing and promotion. Every Chamber of Commerce should back this bill.
  • For local news organizations like this one that you’re reading in print or online, the act offers payroll tax credits to employ and adequately compensate local journalists.

Leonard Woolsey, president of the Galveston, Texas, Daily News, and Southern Newspapers, put it this way in a recent column:

“We are a small business and privately held. No fancy towers in New York City. No, our modest world headquarters sits right off Interstate 45 as you cross onto the island. And our employees are as local as they get. You see us at the local grocery stores, farmers markets and places of worship.

“Our hope is that your support — reaching out to your congressional representatives — will allow us to continue and serve and play a role in our community for years to come.”

According to America’s Newspapers, there are now 37 cosponsors of HR 7640. I urge you to tell your local member of Congress to join this bipartisan effort.

Dennis Hetzel is a consultant, freelance journalist and author of two political thrillers. In earlier lives, he was a reporter, editor, publisher, journalism professor and executive director of the Ohio News Media Association. His new novel, “The Vanished,” will be published later in 2020 or 2021 by Headline Books. You can reach him through his website, www.DennisHetzel.com.

Local Journalism Sustainability Act, Dennis Hetzel