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By DEBORAH E. LANS

GHENT – In September a group of newspaper publishers from around the country, including Mark Vinciguerra, president and owner of Capital Region Independent Media, the owner of The Columbia Paper, flew in to Washington, D.C. Their purpose was to federal legislators to support legislation designed to address several of local journalism’s major financial challenges – including the use of its content, without compensation, by digital platforms such as Google and Facebook.

It is not news that local news is in trouble. In the past two decades, nearly half of New York’s weekly papers have closed. Nationally, that number exceeds 2,000. The country loses, on average, two papers every week. Newspaper circulation has dropped by 48% in 20 years and print advertising revenue has fallen by more than 70% — lost in most cases to digital media. Costs, such as for newsprint, have risen. As a result of these financial challenges, newspapers nationally now employ half the number of journalists that they did 10 years ago.

Seventy million Americans live in counties that are “news deserts” where there is no, or only one (and that, likely, a weekly), newspaper. Moreover, hedge funds and newspaper chains have acquired many of the surviving papers. As a result, fewer than one-third of all weeklies are locally owned and operated. As a result of consolidation, the 10 largest chains own more than 50% of all daily papers. Many daily papers, including the local Register-Star, do not in fact publish every day, but have trimmed to 4, 5 or 6 issues weekly.

The reasons are not mysterious. Digital media are the drivers of the change. Currently, eight in ten Americans get at least some of their news via digital devices. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that almost one-third of Americans regularly get news from Facebook alone, with those under 30 representing the largest share of digital news readers. A recent study by Reuters concluded that one in five adults under 24 uses TikTok as a source of news, and the “news” there is actually produced not by journalists but by “influencers” whose output, readers say, is more “relevant.”

These shifts have deeply affected advertising revenue, which used to surpass circulation revenue and represent the financial engine of the industry. In a paradigm shift, revenue from consumers now exceeds that of advertising, as advertising has shifted away to digital platforms.

There are also new varieties of competing publications. Citizen journalism outlets, like the local site IMBY, which publishes user-generated writing about issues of local importance and tracks government at the county and town level, uses digital technology “to allow the community to create its own local paper,” according to publisher Enid Futterman.

Both large existing publishers, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and independent groups issue specialty newsletters on topics like climate change, health care, and technology.

Does it matter if local news declines or disappears?

Penny Muse Abernathy, a scholar of local news media, has written that “strong local journalism builds social cohesion, encourages political participation and improves the efficiency and decision-making of local and state government.” The existence of local newspapers is said to correlate with lower levels of extreme partisanship. Indeed, there are even studies that say that when there is a strong local news presence, the costs of local government financing (like bond issues) is lower because there is greater scrutiny of government spending.

Conversely, a recent PEN America study concluded: “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.”

Moreover, people still trust local news outlets. A recent Knight Foundation study reported that twice as many Americans have a level of high emotional trust of locally-generated news than they have of national media. People “trust the local news to get it right.”

Paradoxically, in the face of the daunting statistics about the challenges to local media, the vast majority of Americans believes that local news outlets are in good financial shape, according to a Pew study, and fewer than one in six actually purchase local news.

So, what’s the answer?

There are, of course, many that are being tried, including turning outlets into non-profit enterprises, which allows for grants and philanthropic support but potentially narrows the opportunities for editorial advocacy; philanthropic support for public-minded journalism within for-profit enterprises, such as through the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation-Columbia Paper Journalism Fund that defrays some of the costs of articles in this paper on matters of public interest; and Report for America, a Peace-Corp-like effort that puts young journalists in underserved areas.

Also on the table are legislative efforts, such as the one that prompted the September fly-in to Washington.

According to Danielle Coffey, CEO of the trade group NewsMedia Alliance, 60% of all digital advertising revenue is captured by Google and Facebook alone. In turn, about 40% of Google search results is news content from print journalism. Except in the case of certain major media outlets, Google and Facebook do not share the ad revenue they derive from news postings with the news media themselves. Moreover, when a reader clicks through from Google or Facebook to the news outlet to read the full story—which is rare (about one-third of the time)—Google and Facebook take an ad tech tax for themselves of up to 70% of those ad dollars.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA, S 1094) has been proposed by the unlikely duo of U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Kennedy (R-LA) to address this unfairness. Recognizing that small local media lack the clout to negotiate for compensation from digital behemoths, the JCPA would create a narrow safe harbor from the antitrust laws to allow small news companies to combine to negotiate collectively for compensation for the use of their content. Joining forces is voluntary and content-neutral, so conservative and progressive media can all choose to participate.

A number of other countries have enacted laws with a similar purpose of protecting copyrights and facilitating the sharing of revenue between online platforms and news content generators, including the European Union, Australia, Canada and France.

In addition, bills are pending both in Congress (The Community News and Small Business Support Act, HR 4756) and in the New York legislature (S 625, A 2958) to create payroll tax credits for media employing journalists, and the federal bill would also provide a tax credit to small businesses advertising in local media. The laws would have five-year terms. The state legislation has strong bi-partisan support, according to Ken Crowe, president of the Albany Newspaper Guild and a Times Union reporter, because “the importance of local news to protect democracy” is widely-understood.

As Mr. Crowe puts it, “after all, it was a local newspaper that first spotted George Santos” for a fraud. The precarity of local news outlets tells us what “could go wrong.”

Finally, news groups and book authors are beginning to address generative artificial intelligence (GAI) and AI outlets like ChatGPT, which use content both to hone writing skills (imitating the best writers) and to build informational data bases without regard for copyright laws.

A number of authors have brought class action lawsuits seeking compensation for copyright infringement, and the NewsMedia Alliance is formulating a proposal to address transparency and accountability for the use of content. More than 10,000 authors also recently signed a letter demanding that AI companies refrain from using authors’ works without their consent and without fairly compensating and crediting them. The non-profit Authors Guild, which represents the interests of literary authors, is also seeking controls on the use of GAI.

As former Authors Guild General Counsel and Chatham resident Jan Friedman Constantine says, “while there are pros and cons to GAI, it is essential that guardrails, like fair compensation for the use of work and transparency which would require disclosure of sources, be developed.”

Times Union hosts panel on future of local journalism

By PETER FLIERL

Author Margaret Sullivan and Mark Vinciguerra, publisher Capital Region Independent Media, at the panel discussion. Photo by Peter Flierl

ALBANY—On Wednesday, November 15, The Times Union hosted a five-member panel discussion of Assembly Bill A.2958C, which provides a payroll tax credit for compensation of journalists, sponsored by Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner and its partner Senate Bill S.625B. Panelists included: Judy Patrick, vice president for Editorial Development at the New York Press Association; Casey Seiler, editor of the Times Union; John Schleuss, president of the New Guild-CWA; Margaret Sullivan, author of “Newsroom Confidential,” former Public Editor for the New York Times and Washington Post, and former Editor of the Buffalo News; and Mark Vinciguerra, publisher Capital Region Independent Media, which owns The Columbia Paper.

Panelists discussed the loss of local journalism, particularly community newspapers as a “threat to democracy” leading to a decline in civic engagement, a risk to the survival of small business and community organizations, and a rise in extreme partisanship. Advertising has made up 85% of newspaper revenues historically and print advertising fell 71% between 2000 and 2012. The number of daily newspapers declined from 62 to 54 and weekly newspapers, like The Columbia Paper, from 439 to 249.

Ms. Sullivan spoke of local journalism being required in a democracy, and that we have to find common ground on facts and what is reality. Local news sources are more trusted. Mr. Vinciguerra spoke of Washington County not providing advanced agenda for meetings and cited the example of the need for a school crossing guard in one community. He also cited the savings and efficiencies associated with having multiple publications under one roof. Mr. Schleuss reported that 30,000 journalists have been lost since the turn of the century with most remaining in large cities.

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