Legislating to Save Local Journalism
by Representative Dan Newhouse
July 15, 2021
This interview with Representative Dan Newhouse, the U.S. Representative for Washington's 4th congressional district and co-sponsor of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Rep. Newhouse | I'm in my fourth term in Congress. I represent Washington's 4th congressional district, which essentially is the central third of the state — east of the Cascade Mountains from Canada to Oregon. My district is largely agricultural — there are forestry farms and ranches. We have some varied industries, but we are largely a rural district. My largest community city is just under a hundred thousand people. I have a larger metropolitan area of the Tri-Cities, but that is still the case that Yakima is my largest city.
This issue of local journalism truly resonates with central Washington. I think a lot of rural districts around the country feel the plight that the journalism industry finds itself in today. It truly does have an impact on communities.
frank | How have newspapers fared in your communities? What kind of shutdowns have you seen over the years?
Some of the smaller town’s newspapers have shuttered over the last several years. More importantly, even the major newspapers in my district are truly struggling. This has been happening even before the pandemic, but over the last year and a half, advertising dollars have almost evaporated totally, exacerbating the existing problem. We are trying to be as proactive as possible and be helpful to them so that closed doors is not the eventual outcome.
Can you talk about the Local Journalism Sustainability Act?
The basic premise of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is that it helps provide a bridge for the business model of journalism media. Journalism has historically relied primarily on advertising revenue, with only some subscription revenue. The goal is to flip that model around to be more reliant on the subscription side and less on the advertising side. As they are making that transition, this will help give them a little more time by providing them with various tax credits.
There are three main tax credits. The subscription tax credit allows an individual who buys a subscription to get a tax credit. There are also advertisers who can get trapped tax credits for advertising in the print media. And for hiring local journalists, companies can also get a tax credit for them for doing that. These credits are temporary — there is a five-year timeline.
The reason for this is that I have seen and heard many stories around the country of communities losing their local source for news. That leaves people to rely primarily on national outlets. To some extent that is fine. There's certainly a lot of good information to get from national outlets, but it has an impact on people's ability to stay current on what's happening in their own community. I think that it is really important for communities to have good sources of local news in their hometowns.
The nationalization of news is something we have spoken about with many experts over the past two months. It seems that not only do you lose information about what's going on in your own community, but also local races then become so hinged upon national stakes and opinions. Do you see a shift in the way candidates run or act with the collapse of local news?
Well, just the nature of all news, in general, is that there's always some monster to feed. There is always a demand for information. And so what do you fill that up with? You're right. I think that many of the things that people hear on a regular basis are more national in scope. What is lost in that is some things that are important to local areas. I can certainly see the logic behind the theory that local political races — city council, county commission, state representatives — tend to then focus more on things that maybe are outside influence or control of the individual office that's being considered. Being informed of local issues is very important to those kinds of local political races, for sure.
Anecdotally, is there a change in communicating with constituents or what your constituents are interested in hearing?
I guess I could tell you that what we try to do here is boil down what's happening here in Washington, DC and how it impacts people in my district. Certainly, there are a host of things that people are interested in on a national level, but we try to spend a lot of time focusing on things happening in central Washington, both in our communication and what we do here.
That's where I can have an impact and where I can most represent our best represent the people in central Washington. In a town hall, people might be really focused on, just as an example, a Supreme Court vacancy or international trade disputes, which are all important things for sure, and we want to hear from people on it, but we focus a lot of our time on local issues. We focus a lot of our time on the agricultural water situation or the dams along the state river and the salmon migration — you know, things that are truly of high interest to my constituents.
Have you been able to find bipartisan support for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act?
Certainly. The two main co-sponsors are me, a Republican, and Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat. We had 78 co-sponsors in the last Congress. I anticipate that we will have similar bipartisanship in the co-sponsors we can get this year, and we are actually looking to increase the number of Republican sponsors.
I think we had over 20 Republican co-sponsors last year. We are continuing to talk to more folks. These bills, like any legislative effort, evolve. It takes time to educate people. It takes time to help them be aware of not only the issue but also the solution that's being proposed.
I think over time, what we've been able to see in conversations with people is that they're recognizing that this is an issue in their districts too and that now that they're aware of the conversation of how to address it, we're getting a lot more interest from members of Congress.
What, if any, pushback do you hear?
Well, you are probably aware of this, but there's been a lot of criticism about the media in general. There has been conversation about whether we can believe the media or not, and whether it's fake or not. Certainly, you can seek almost any perspective you want, depending on which news source you go to. The question is, I guess, why would you want to help that industry if they're saying bad things about us? If they're wrong, why would anybody want to consolidate that? That is the key critique: why should we even step up to help the news media at all?
How do you respond to that?
My response is that if you're complaining about fake news in the national media, then it is a great thing to be sure that we have strong local media. It is a great thing to make sure that we're not being fed just what people in New York City or whatever the mainstream news in print or television or radio tell us. As a community, as a region, as a state, we should develop our own perspectives to better understand what is important to us. I think it's absolutely critical that we don't rely just on national sources of information.
Are people open to that argument of local news being a non-partisan or less partisan antidote?
Yes. I don’t know if I would classify them as non-partisan, certainly, there's going to be a philosophical bent no matter where you are. But, one of the things that media fosters is conversation and debate. If there is an article that my local paper prints, there are always opportunities for people to write in letters to the editor or comment. I think that local debate is very helpful.