How Sen. Bennet can help save community news in Colorado

Op-ed by Gregory L. Moore and Tim Regan-Porter

No matter what issue you care about most – public education, the environment, affordable housing, economic opportunities – Colorado news outlets like this one connect you to the news you need to think globally and act locally.

Yet the financial collapse of reliable local news is a statewide and even a national crisis – and too few Coloradans recognize the serious threat to our communities.

Between 2004 and 2019, in small towns and suburbs across the state, Colorado has lost 33 newspapers – about one out of every five – including the Rocky Mountain News in 2009. Nationwide, some 1,800 communities have lost newspapers over the past two decades, leaving “news deserts” across the country – especially devastating in rural areas and communities of color.

Too often, the local news vacuums are being filled by social media, partisan hyperbole, and harmful disinformation. Without good, accurate local information, Colorado families cannot make good decisions for themselves – and communities cannot solve their own problems.

Rebuilding local news and a healthier public square will require a massive effort that must include a significant increase in philanthropic support, which is why the Colorado Media Project has helped to raise millions of dollars from private foundations since 2018 to help stimulate innovation in the local news ecosystem. Individual readers and civic-minded businesses are stepping up too, increasing donations, memberships and sponsorships for local news nationwide.

But philanthropy alone is not enough. Community news organizations are vital, local businesses that also need and deserve some (smart) public support — and Sen. Michael Bennett is in a unique position to make it happen.

Public support, you might ask? How on Earth can newsrooms take money from the government? Isn’t that like the muckrakers taking money from the muck makers?

Fortunately, there is a shrewd way to help save local news businesses without the government gaining influence over journalists or their coverage. It’s called the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. This clever, bipartisan bill would provide more help for local news than at any time in about a century – and it’s done in a very First-Amendment-friendly way.

It helps small media outlets as well as larger players, nonprofits as well as commercial models, digital and print, communities of color and rural areas. The key provisions are:

  • A tax credit of up to $250 for consumers to buy local newspaper subscriptions or make donations to nonprofit local news organizations.
  • A refundable payroll tax credit of up to $25,000 to incentivize local news organizations for keeping local journalists on the payroll.
  • A tax credit of up to $5,000 for small businesses to use to advertise with local news publishers.

Because these are tax credits, there’s no government involvement in picking winners or losers – it’s more akin to the Postal Service subsidy implemented by the Founding Fathers. This stands to be particularly good for smaller local news businesses and those covering communities of color. They do not have to hire an expensive lobbyist in Washington; if they do local reporting, they would qualify automatically.

The refundable tax credit for small businesses to advertise has two beneficiaries: the newsroom and the small business, which basically gets free marketing money. Local businesses from Aurora to Aspen would essentially get almost $5,000 to advertise their services, as long as they do so through local media.

The payroll tax credit goes right at a core problem facing journalism today – that the current business models aren’t enough to support labor-intensive investigative or accountability reporting. This tax credit could change the dynamics within newsrooms by making the hiring or retaining of journalists relatively more appealing. Because it’s a payroll-tax break – rather than an income-tax break – this is also available for nonprofit organizations.

The House Ways & Means Committee included a portion of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act – the payroll-tax credit – in its budget reconciliation bill. Now it’s up to the Senate Finance Committee – on which Sen. Bennet is an influential member – to decide whether it survives in the Senate.

It is supported by groups representing more than 3,000 medium and small newsrooms around the country, and many of their countless supporters. We hope Sen. Bennet can help pass this vital bill.

This bill is not just a stop-gap, but rather would help create a stronger and more inclusive local news system in the future.

Editor’s note: Gregory Moore is former editor of the Denver Post and a member of the Colorado Media Project’s Local Advisory Committee and Public Policy Working Group. Tim Regan-Porter is CEO of the Colorado Press Association.