If you want America’s story told, Mr. President, save local newspapers


Something was missing in President Joe Biden’s rousing State of the Union speech, and there’s an easy fix.

Biden lamented that America’s comeback story is not being told.

“I came to office determined to get us through one of the toughest periods in the nation’s history. We have,” he said last Thursday. “It doesn’t make … news (but) in a thousand cities and towns, the American people are writing the greatest comeback story never told.”

Brier Dudley's SAVE THE FREE PRESS columns are made available for free to the public and to other newspapers for their use — to build awareness of the local journalism crisis and potential solutions. The entire body of work is viewable here: st.news/SavetheFreePress

Well, that’s what happens when a country loses two-thirds of its newspaper reporters and its local press system is on life support.

America’s story isn’t getting told because more than half of U.S. counties lost all or nearly all of their reliable, local news sources over the last two decades.

I’ve said it before but the message apparently didn’t reach the White House:

A robust, trusted local news system is how Americans would read about federal investments improving their communities and creating local jobs. That progress isn’t apparent when you’re left with news from social media and cable TV.

Members of Congress know this and should let Biden know how bad it’s gotten outside the Beltway. In their districts, there are fewer if any reporters covering their accomplishments.

Abundant research shows that civic engagement declines when local newspapers fade away. Voters in such places often don’t know their mayor’s name much less government spending outcomes.

There’s an easy solution, just waiting for leadership in Washington, D.C., to get it done. It would cost perhaps .03% of the 2025 budget that Biden proposed after his speech.

That would be the Community News and Small Business Support Act introduced last July. It has bipartisan support, including support from nearly all of Washington’s delegation.

I wish Biden included that in his speech, or in his budget. Better yet, he could use his influence to help get it passed this year, before hundreds more newspapers fail and thousands more journalists are laid off.

Biden plugged housing and child tax credits sought by U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Medina Democrat, but not the Community News bill she’s co-sponsoring.

In a statement, DelBene said she’s “regularly advocating” for the news bill with administration leaders but lately she’s been working to build support for it in the House.

Biden clearly supports the press and knows it’s essential to democracy, which he’s admirably working to defend.

Signaling support for press freedom, Biden said: “We will also work around the clock to bring home Evan and Paul, Americans being unjustly detained by the Russians, and others around the world.”

That referred to Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested last year on a bogus espionage charge, and former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been jailed since 2018.

Biden’s budget would provide “over $3 billion for bolstering global democracy, including $345 million for the President’s Initiative for Democratic Renewals to foster transparent and accountable governance.”

Great. How about doing the same in rural and suburban America? More than 70 million citizens live in news deserts there, without local news shining light on governance and holding officials accountable.

The Community News bill would halt the spread of news deserts, with tax credits for outlets retaining or hiring journalists. This would save newsroom jobs and incentivize publishers, small and large, to hire more. It would spur news outlets’ renewal and the creation of new ones.

An earlier version, estimated to cost just under $2 billion, nearly passed in the previous Congress. If only lawmakers gave it the same urgency they’ve lately shown for a bill requiring carmakers to continue providing AM radios. Don’t expect much local news on those radios unless you also save local journalism.

Biden touted investments in broadband access and called for $6 billion more. Super. But weakened news outlets struggle to get attention in the online smorgasbord. As I wrote earlier, people now spend much of their free time using broadband to watch old TV shows.

The unwritten comeback story includes a record 16 million Americans starting small businesses, “and each one is a literal act of hope,” Biden said.

Each could also be a news story, telling people about their enterprising neighbors and economic progress. But few will get covered because local newsrooms are gone, gutted or overstretched.

The Community News bill would also help small businesses, with tax credits if they advertise locally.

Biden repeatedly mentioned fairness. He said his American values include this being a place giving “everyone a fair shot.” Right on. How about giving local newspapers a fair shot to succeed online?

That won’t happen unless the government reins monopolistic gatekeepers. Biden’s Department of Justice is on it, pursuing an antitrust case over Google business practices that are shorting publishers.

But that case will take years, and publishers can’t wait. Newspaper failures are accelerating, to 2.5 per week, according to Northwestern University’s Medill School.

Another bipartisan proposal would give small and regional publishers a fair shot of getting paid by tech giants making billions off news content. They’re already paying the biggest outlets. How about giving the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act a boost, Mr. President?

The Community News bill would stop newsrooms’ bleeding. The JCPA would put the industry on a path toward sustainability.

Democracy would be strengthened by having more informed voters and shared facts inoculating them against the worsening scourge of misinformation. Civic illiteracy would decline and Americans would know more about what their government and elected officials are doing right and wrong.

That’s a comeback story that Biden can help Congress write tomorrow, before it becomes an obituary.

Brier Dudley on Twitter: @BrierDudley is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative. Its weekly newsletter: https://st.news/FreePressNewsletter. Reach him at bdudley@seattletimes.com.