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The crisis facing local papers — and why it matters to democracy

Is local journalism a public good worth saving?

If so, public funding could go a long way in addressing a decade-long trend of declining revenue that has forced local newspapers to cut staff, reduce coverage and sometimes close their doors.

An array of ambitious recommendations on how the federal government could save local papers are out this week from the Brookings Institution, one of Washington's best-regarded think tanks, which outlines the crisis facing the industry and why it matters to the health of American democracy.

In the decade ending last year, newspaper advertising revenue plummeted by two-thirds (68 percent) while the industry's workforce was cut almost in half (47 percent). But the near-collapse of the old business model, which relied on print advertising and paid subscribers for revenue, has largely affected local news rather than the most prominent national papers — The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post — whose revenue has increased in recent years.

For local news, the reality is different: One in five local papers have closed since 2004, creating so-called "news deserts," or areas of the country without a daily or weekly newspaper, in more than 200 counties, affecting over 5 million people.

The report describes how the problems facing local newspapers has affected the health of democracy.

Newsroom closings and layoffs, for instance, have resulted in fewer reporters in statehouses or in Washington scrutinizing the actions of elected officials and providing information to readers that could influence their voting behavior.

The report also cites research correlating the loss of local newspapers with decreased turnout in state and local elections as well as fewer candidates choosing to run for local office and "a general disengagement from local politics."

Other studies suggest news deserts increase polarization in a community because people are left with only national news outlets. Those "tend to report on partisan conflict, focusing on the polarization of national political elites," in Brookings' summation. "With local news struggling to survive and compete with national news outlets for consumers' attention, partisan reporting and coverage of national partisan conflict has come to dominate news consumers' diets."

Viewing local news as a public good critical to a healthy democracy, rather than simply a product suffering from market forces, puts the onus on lawmakers to do something to save it.

"In other words, when those who read, listen, and watch the news are thought of purely as consumers, the economic challenges confronting today's local newsrooms are not particularly troubling," the report says. "But when news consumers are also seen as citizens and participants in civic life, threats to the commercial viability of the local news industry greatly diminishes the ability to meet the demands of living in a democracy."

The report recommends that Congress extend the personal tax deduction for local news subscriptions, offer tax breaks for newspaper expenses and allow papers to claim tax exemptions on advertising and subscription revenue.

The report also suggests lawmakers address how large online platforms, such as Google and Facebook, generate advertising revenue by aggregating and distributing content from local news without that revenue circling back to the news outlet.

Recommendations for lawmakers include taxing platforms that display a news publisher's content, providing an exemption to antitrust laws to allow publishers to collectively negotiate with Facebook and Google, and opening an antitrust investigation into the two companies' dominance of digital advertising revenue and whether any of their practices have unfairly disadvantaged news publishers.

We’re all about the issues that have broken American democracy — and efforts to make governments work again for you, your family and your friends.
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The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Passage of historic voting rights law takes a partisan turn

In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.

The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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Big Picture

TV stations fight FCC over political ad disclosure

Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.

With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.

This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.

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1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.

Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.

Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.

I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.

Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.

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