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Here’s how to help newspapers without government interference, the Editorial Board writes

The federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act is now before both the Senate and the House

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) In this April 20, 2016, file photo, shows the Salt Lake Tribune sign in Salt Lake City.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Rabbi Hillel

Sometimes an institution just needs to stand up and speak on behalf of itself, to be honest about the value it brings to the community and what it needs for that contribution to continue. Even if it may sound self-serving.

But if a newspaper serves the community, as this one and a great many others do, then helping the newspaper helps our communities. A newspaper, or news website, brings its readers information they absolutely need in order to fulfill their roles as intelligent and informed voters, citizens, parents, business people, patients, public servants, travelers and consumers.

That is where the federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act — now before both the Senate and the House — comes in.

At least on the House side, the bill is bipartisan. Sadly, no member of Utah’s congressional delegation is yet listed as a co-sponsor. To serve their communities, our senators and House members should lend their support.

The measure is necessary because, in the last couple of decades, we have seen how the impact of local news organizations does not match their revenue streams. Newspapers’ loss of advertising revenue, particularly classified advertising income, to the internet was quickly followed by the appearance of many websites that provide something that may kind of look like news for free — and was worth about that much.

As a result, the number of journalists employed in America tumbled by some 25% — by some 30,000 newshounds — since 2008. And, since 2004, the nation has lost 2,100 newspapers, 71 of them dailies.

Those losses do not just threaten the viability of newspapers as businesses. Without consistent and aggressive coverage of local news and information by independent journalists, the very process of self-government becomes untenable. What rushes in to fill the gap is often ideologically slanted, or downright false, information that does not inform and empower so much as divide and confuse.

The Salt Lake Tribune is among those that has had to cut back its staff, its reach and the number of days it prints a daily broadsheet. But it was given new life and hope with its transition in 2019 to a nonprofit, community-owned organization. Thanks to our many supporters, local and national, the size of our news organization is growing, and we are providing more breaking news and more in-depth coverage of Utah issues.

Not that we, and all other news organizations, couldn’t use a little more financial assurance.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act would bolster the fiscal health of news organizations, for-profit and nonprofit, with three key tax benefits, only one of which would flow directly to the newspaper.

If passed into law, the bill would offer readers a tax credit of up to $250 for either subscribing or donating to a local news organization. It would offer small businesses that buy ads in their local publications a tax credit of up to $5,000.

Neither is an amount large enough to push people who don’t want to read the paper, or see no purpose in advertising in it, to spend their money that way. That means newspapers would still have to meet a market demand (or they must be relevant) to benefit from those tax breaks.

The bill would also provide a refundable payroll tax credit of up to $25,000 to newspapers to make it easier to hire more reporters, editors and photographers. The fact that it’s a payroll tax, rather than income tax, break makes it as available to nonprofits as to for-profits, as nonprofits that are exempt for income tax still must pay payroll taxes to support Social Security and Medicare.

The beauty of this idea is that it does not put the government, or any subdivision thereof, in the position of choosing which news organizations will benefit. Thus there will be no favoritism for or against whichever newspapers may be in the good graces of whatever political party might be in power at any given moment.

The numbers are also small enough that their largest benefit would be to community publications — serving small towns and individual neighborhoods or ethnic groups in larger cities — as opposed to major metro dailies.

(It is also true that the bravest and boldest of community-serving publications will benefit alongside the shallow, absentee-owned newspapers being stripped for parts by vulture hedge funds. Can’t have everything.)

In addition to supporting The Tribune, or other community news organizations, with their time and money, everyone who sees the value of independent journalism should let their members of Congress know how they feel.

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