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Cantwell’s plan to revitalize community journalism

The coronavirus pandemic surely has damaged core sectors of the American economy. Small businesses that serve communities in every nook and cranny of this country have been severely impacted by COVID-19. It has not only gutted their financial viability but has sent historic numbers of Americans, many working for small businesses, to the unemployment line.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s loosening of the facemask mandate last month signaled that an end to the pandemic may finally be looming on our horizon. Over the past several months, many laid-off or furloughed workers have returned to work and businesses are doing what they can to recover from the devastating downturn.

Bob Smith, executive editor for Kitsap News Group

Bob Smith, executive editor for Kitsap News Group

The lingering effects of the catastrophic pandemic, however, will continue for some businesses, including community newspapers and local broadcasters. Reeling from the monopolistic business practices of digital giants Google and Facebook over the past decade, the newspaper business overall has suffered a steep decline in advertising revenue. Sen. Maria Cantwell reported to her Senate Commerce Committee that newspaper ad revenue has declined 70 percent since 2000, and newsroom employment has dropped 60 percent since 2005.

The pandemic sent the already declining community newspaper industry into a tailspin. Some Sound Publishing newspapers and hundreds of others around the country suspended publication and were forced to furlough employees and shorten work hours over the many dark months of 2020 and beyond. Thankfully, our Kitsap News Group publications weathered the viral storm and have returned to local newsstands and are being delivered to our loyal subscribers.

While that’s good news in the short term, the long-term future for community journalism is uncertain.

The community newspaper industry will need additional help if it is to continue to provide citizens with the local news coverage they deserve. Cantwell considers the community journalism industry to be critical to the nation’s infrastructure — and to democracy itself. She has promised to hold Senate committee hearings to address big tech’s unfair marketplace advantages that have imperiled the journalism industry.

While it will likely take years for Congress and the courts to rewire and rebalance the digital playing field, Cantwell recognizes that help is needed — now — for local news outlets to survive. On May 11, the senator told an audience of newspaper industry members that she will seek $2.3 billion in grants and tax credits to assist local newspapers and broadcasters as part of the Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.

That should be welcome news for all Americans. Cantwell’s initiative comes on the heels of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. The act also would provide help to news outlets, advertisers supporting newspapers and subscribers alike. It received support from both sides of the aisle in the House last year and should be reintroduced again in Congress.

The lines separating news reports written by trained journalists from stories written by content providers have become becoming increasingly blurred in the information revolution spurred by the birth of new social media platforms. Information, per se, isn’t a bad thing, so long that those who consume it understand who’s delivering it and what their motivations are in sharing it. Social media content is not journalism and content providers aren’t journalists. News reporters working for traditional newspapers and websites strive to provide accurate and objective reports for their customers, the reader. Content providers who post on social media are paid to write stories, many unfounded and filled with out-of-context references, that benefit companies and special interests, not necessarily the reader.

The information marketplace is evolving at a quick pace, and lawmakers have a duty to ensure that Americans continue to have this vital resource at hand — community newspapers and professional journalists who serve a critical role as governmental and societal watchdogs for our democratic way of life.

These efforts in Congress are more than economic stimulants. They are a means to keep our democracy healthy on Main Street — in our communities and our local governments — led by well-informed and in-touch citizens.

— Editorial written by Bob Smith, executive editor for Kitsap News Group