There are communities across the U.S. that have been forced to navigate the pandemic and 2020’s other challenges without local media in place to assist them by providing timely, trustworthy information. As the virus began to spread, creating public health concerns and economic devastation, these areas were already what are referred to as “news deserts” — places no longer served by local newspapers.
That process — expansion across America of these “deserts” — has only accelerated as the pandemic has heaped layer upon layer of hardship on businesses, including the brick and mortar enterprises that serve as the foundations of local economies. Papers and other media, businesses themselves, are part of and depend upon those local economies.
Before the pandemic, communities needed their local newspapers. In times like these, the need for dependable, real information is all the more important.
There are things, one supposes, that social media is good for. Keeping up with friends and family — social stuff. A useful tool for disseminating well-intentioned information.
Then there are things social media is just good at: like spreading quickly and broadly misinformation created by bad actors on the far side of the planet for nefarious reasons. It’s great at making us less reliably informed and more divided. Angrier.
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Social media posts masquerading as news give the virus and other enemies their best chance at making us less than we ever imagined we could be.
But in a real “news desert,” what are the options?
The country can’t afford more “news deserts” and New Mexico — largely poor, in many places isolated and without reliable internet access — certainly cannot. It’s something New Mexico’s representatives in Congress should keep in mind as they’re presented with opportunities to support federal legislation aimed at providing local news organizations a lifeline.
The relief measure, House Resolution 7640, known as The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, was introduced in the U.S. House July 16 by Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, Washington, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, Arizona, and has garnered bipartisan support as momentum for it has built.
We call on New Mexico’s representatives to support the measure on behalf of newspapers in the state and nation, and the communities that depend on those papers; and to exercise their influence in seeing it passed. (Note: U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Debra Haaland have signed on as co-sponsors.)
The proposed legislation would create incentives, in the form of tax credits, aimed at strengthening local news organizations.
There would be tax credits for small businesses to provide incentives for advertising in local newspapers and other local media; tax credits available to all Americans to encourage subscriptions to local newspapers, in print and online; and a payroll tax credit to help local news organizations provide compensation for journalists.
People read their local newspapers because they provide vital information — especially vital when things are at their worst. Businesses that advertise know newspapers deliver results.
A tax credit for keeping one’s self informed — or, from the perspective of a business, for making use of one of the world’s most proven means of messaging. Those are things most Americans would appreciate at any time, but especially when they need every dollar to stretch as far as possible.
Local newsrooms could certainly use the assistance in keeping their skilled local reporting staffs active and intact.
The pandemic’s not over. As we rebuild from it in New Mexico and elsewhere, a process likely to take years, local newspapers are going to be as needed as they’ve ever been to report on news and events along the way. But there’s no avoiding the reality: Many of them face real economic jeopardy as the pandemic economy lingers.
The incentives offered by the Local Journalism Sustainability Act aren’t permanent — they’d “sunset” after five years. They would help local papers bridge the gap between this terrible moment in the histories of their communities and … whatever comes next.
Hopefully that’s something resembling normalcy. But whatever it looks like, communities across the country will be better prepared to face it with their local newspapers in their corners, something this key piece of legislation helps ensure.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.