A provision in President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan will benefit community news publishers across the United States by providing a tax credit that rewards local news organizations for employing journalists.
But some Black newspaper publishers in California — and across the country — say, although the proposal, valued at $1.67 billion, is rooted in good intentions, it will not benefit their businesses.
“My first reaction was to applaud. This would be the first time a president has put forth a plan that acknowledges we even exist,” said Dr. John Warren, publisher of the San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, the city’s largest Black newspaper. “Congress passed the Preservation Act in 1970, but that didn’t protect us from the losses we saw a few decades later.”
Warren points out that the tax credit is not a big event for businesses that have losses.
“You would have to get a gain to benefit. Most of our papers are not making profits, at least not substantially, due to the pandemic and other factors,” said Warren. “I think it could have been better done if there were bids — bids for public work jobs, etc, to be advertised in community newspapers. I would consider that something meaningful and sustainable. “
Nationwide, there are less than 5,000 community newspapers, according to Warren. Of that number, Black papers account for less than 200.
“At one point we had about 600 papers in the country,” Warren said, referring to Black-owned and operated publications.
The bill provides a credit of up to $25,000 to defray employment taxes in the first year, and $15,000 in the next four years, for each employee.
Supporters say the provision will create an incentive for some publishers to hire or retain local reporters. The tax credit would amount to around $1.67 billion over 10 years.
On Friday, the United States House of Representatives voted to approve the Build Back Better act with 220-213 vote along party lines. The bill is now headed to the U.S. Senate where lawmakers are expected to make a number of amendments after Thanksgiving.
The provision was briefly dropped from the plan; however, it was restored after a ground swell of support from mainstream community news agencies.
The new draft strengthened important details surrounding the inclusion of public and commercial broadcasters to receive compensation as well as stronger rules to screen out political advocacy groups. There will also be limits on how much a single corporation can receive.
Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America told Poynter that “this is a huge step forward for a strong, local press — and for the communities they serve.”
Conservative opponents of the provision have called the measure a “media bailout” and believe that the federal support would create biases in the way news is covered.
Waldman, who has helped lead the drive for the tax credit, believes the funding will support different kinds of news outlets.
“This approach is a simple, content neutral, non-partisan, First Amendment friendly way to save local news,” Waldman told CNN Business. “It’s focused on the core problem — that the collapse of the business models has led to a shortage of local reporters. This focuses on helping newsrooms to retain or hire local journalists.”
Lisa Collins, publisher of LA Focus, an African American-serving newspaper based in Los Angeles said she was excited when she heard about the measure. But as she read more details, she was not convinced the provision would help her publication.
Collins says she mainly relies on a team of freelancers and contractors. Many of them are not seeking fulltime employment and the costs to transition them to W-2 employees would be prohibitive for her.
“Initiatives like this, I observe, work better when the people they are intended to benefit are included in coming up with the concept and how it will work.” said Collins. “Nobody included our publications in the conversation. No one invited us to the table.”
Components of the Build Back Better plan include efforts to reduce the cost of childcare. Namely, a provision that will deliver two years of free preschool for every 3 and 4-year-old in America. It also provides more than 35 million families a tax cut by expanding the federal Child Tax Credit. Funding for efforts to address climate change that would cut greenhouse gas pollution, reduce consumer energy costs and advance environmental justice is a central component of the plan. The act also includes money to expand affordable healthcare and housing tax credits.
“This bill is just the first step. We will continue to address the many challenges faced by millions across America,” said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13). “I urge my Senate colleagues to act swiftly to pass this legislation — which will create good paying union jobs, address racial and economic inequality, and reduce poverty. I look forward to sending this legislation to President Biden for his signature.”