As the Biden administration prepares to convene a virtual summit of the world's democracies this week, lawmakers in Washington are pushing a plan to fight what they perceive as a threat to democracy at home: the sharp decline of local news coverage.
Between 2004 and 2020, the United States lost more than 25% of its local newspapers, according to data gathered by the University of North Carolina Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. Those that remain are operating with far fewer reporters than they used to, as more than half of total journalism jobs in the United States have disappeared over the same period.
A section of the Build Back Better Act, the giant social and environmental spending package currently working its way through Congress, is aimed at helping repair some of that damage. The proposal would support the hiring of journalists by local news outlets through $1.67 billion in payroll tax credits to be delivered over the next five years.
Advocates for local journalism said that the $1.67 billion investment in local newsrooms could be enormously beneficial to local news outlets across the country, many of which have been forced to shut down because much local advertising, historically a major source of revenue, has migrated to the internet.
"It could be profound. It could help save local news, and it's a very big deal," Steve Waldman, the president and co-founder of Report for America, told VOA. "There are 1,800 communities that have no local newspapers at all, and there are thousands more that barely have anything. Sixty percent of reporting positions have gone away since 2000."
The proposal would subsidize reporters' salaries, providing a tax credit equal to 50% of the first $50,000, in the first year. In the following years, the subsidy would drop to 30%. If not renewed by Congress, the program would end after five years.
The U.S. communities without local sources of news are increasingly known as "news deserts." Many experts warn that their existence is damaging not just to the communities that have no local source of information, but to the growing partisan divide in the United States.
Karen Rundlet, director of journalism at the Knight Foundation, told VOA that local news sources in the United States have typically served as agents of social cohesion, reporting on issues that affect everyone in a community.
In areas with no local news coverage, public officials have no reliable means of communicating with the general public about the issues facing local government. As a result, the public becomes disengaged at a local level, and civic participation suffers.
"Local news informs people of basic public services, education, local government, city government, things like that," said Rundlet. "When people aren't aware of those issues, they don't vote as much."
Filling the gap
Waldman and Rundlet both said that the decline of local journalism has contributed to higher levels of partisanship in the United States, because in its absence, people tend to consume more national news, which is frequently reported as a battle between Democrats and Republicans. They also turn to social media, which tends to amplify conflict between the country's two main political parties.
"When something disappears, something else fills in the gap," Rundlet said. "If local news disappears, it's not only national news that fills the gap, it's also, frankly, misinformation and disinformation."
"The collapse of local news is a deep crisis for democracy, especially on the local level because it gets increasingly hard for communities to solve their own problems when there's no good source of local news, or information," Waldman added. "Saving local news should be part of any serious effort to save and strengthen democracy."
In an ironic twist, this effort to combat growing partisanship in the United States, if it becomes law, will almost certainly do so on a purely partisan basis. That is despite its having bipartisan origins.
The first version of the proposal was introduced in 2020 as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat from Arizona, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Washington. The bill had dozens of co-sponsors, including 20 Republicans.
However, because the proposal has been rolled into President Joe Biden's signature Build Back Better Act, it received no votes from Republicans when it passed the House of Representatives, and is not expected to garner any Republican support in the Senate, either.