Proposed law in New York would extend tax credit to struggling local newsrooms
There's a push underway to include a new tax credit for news organizations in the final New York state budget plan.
Supporters of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act say the intent is to boost local or community journalism by giving a payroll tax credit to news organizations employing at least one full-time journalist who is assigned to cover local news.
Ken Crowe is president of the Albany Newspaper Guild local 31034 of the News Guild/ Communication Workers of America and a Times Union reporter.
“Local journalism is in a crisis, a period of crisis," Crowe said. "The best anecdote that goes around is what happened in the Ogdensburg. The paper there was no longer functioning, and a fist fight broke out at a city council meeting. That shows you the extremes that can happen when there aren't local reporters covering matters and keeping an eye on things.”
"Rebuild Local News New York," a coalition of local newsrooms, unions and other organizations says news "deserts" are growing nationwide. Tony Podlaski has a newspaper background. He's Department Chair for English, Foreign Languages, and English as a Second Language at Hudson Valley Community College.
"Yes, there is news desert out there," said Podlaski. "Especially with a lot of the smaller newspapers, that’ve pretty much become non-existent, or, you know, especially in rural areas itself. But at the same time, too, I know, there is an interest, as one who teaches journalism, students are interested. So that means that they, you know, they do want to pursue the profession itself. And most of us who were in that profession started at a small newspaper. So there has to be some sense of an opportunity out there for students. I have [them] here at Hudson Valley, who eventually may want to pursue a career, transfer to a four year school and then start working for a newspaper. So there has to be something to work with, at least for the next generation journalists."
According to the coalition, weekly newspapers statewide have dropped from 439 in 2004 to 249 in 2019, while all New York papers have lost 63% of their circulation. Again, Crowe:
“That's why the New York News Publishers Association and the news guild locals are working together. This is a management labor drive with the backing of the state broadcasting Association and the broadcasting unions to get the Act passed, which provides tax credits for five years, that would underwrite the salaries of reporters and editors, and allow them to continue to cover local journalism, whether it's on the radio, such as you're doing for WAMC, one of the local TV stations, or what I do as a reporter, in my full time job as a reporter for the Albany Times Union,” Crowe said.
"Rebuild Local News New York" argues that communities with less local news experience more waste and corruption, and less civic engagement. Add to the mix the rise of people's trust and reliance on social media and "counterfeit" local news websites, and the fact that the bottom has fallen out of print advertising, including the now antiquated "classified ads."
Others worry about the implications of government investment in news organizations.
Albany County Legislator Mark Grimm, a Republican from the 29th district, spent 12 years as a TV news anchor/reporter in six different markets. He thinks the legislation is "is an incentive for inappropriate behavior."
"I think this proposed legislation is really frightening," Grimm said. "Because the newspapers would become beholden to the people they are covering, the people giving them the tax credit. And according to the legislation, the government would get to decide what a journalist is. That to me is frightening and it should frighten other people as well."
Carrie Woerner, a Democrat from the Assembly’s 113th district, sponsored the measure. She says local coverage barely exists in many communities.
“The thought behind this bill is to is to how do we make it so that these, the media companies that, you know, that still exist, the local papers that still exist, whether those are dailies or weeklies, or I suppose the online analogues that have taken their place, how can we encourage them to hire journalists and local journalists and have enough people to cover the town meetings, have enough people to cover the community events? And that's how we that's how we make sure that we've got strong communities is by having, you know, having local journalists. It plays a key role,” Woerner said.
Woerner says there is value to having independent media with skilled journalists and the code of ethics they subscribe to. The legislation has yet to move.
"We'd love to see it be included in the in the final budget. But right now, we're focused on just making sure that we we communicate with lots of lots of members and seek their support and their co-sponsorship on the legislation,” said Woerner.
The tax credit would equal 50% of wages paid to news journalists for up to $12,500 in wages per quarter.
The Senate version of the bill is in the Budget and Revenue Committee. Governor Kathy Hochul’s office did not respond to a request for comment.