In the crowded field of nonprofits supporting local news ventures, Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro’s National Trust for Local News stands out as something distinct. Rather than grants, the trust makes investments. Advice and some control come with the help. But the point is for recipients to gather other investors and develop models for serving small-town news deserts that are losing all local coverage. I refer to the project as Hansen Shapiro’s because she developed the idea, first as a Ph.D. thesis, then as a research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, and now as a research fellow at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
Alden Global Capital isn’t just an owner of newspapers. It famously acquired and shepherded to bankruptcy big brands like Fred’s Pharmacy and Payless Shoe Source. But the company has in recent years honed in on newspapers expressly, purposely targeting them for acquisition. "It's straightforward," said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post. “Newspapers are mostly still profitable. They still have assets, and this is a late-stage effort to harvest those assets and the profit that still exists, without regard to long-term sustainability.” “They are called ‘vulture capitalists’ for a reason.”
The largest federation of unions in the United States wrote to Leader Chuck Schumer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal on Friday, commending Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Ann Kirkpatrick for introducing the legislation. The bill is a “lifeline for these essential community institutions as they struggle to provide the information their readers rely on during the current national emergency, and to set local news outlets up for a successful recovery,” Government Affairs Director William Samuel wrote.
Bipartisan support in Congress has gathered for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, and its supporters believe there’s a decent chance it will be a part of the huge spending bill that Congress is now focusing on. The proposal, which provides a series of tax credits rather than direct grants, is intended to give local newspapers, digital-only publications and other local news organizations a chance to be financially viable as they figure out how to make their way in the new digital world.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act and the benefits it provides can seem like an abstraction, but if passed it could help The AFRO further engage the Black community in Baltimore, D.C. and beyond double its editorial staff, securing its future for another 130 years. This is not just the work of a good newspaper, it’s the work of democracy.
By helping local news through a market-oriented approach, the Local News Sustainability Act has gained bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. As it happens, Pennsylvania’s members of Congress are in a position to have an outsize impact. Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey both serve on the Senate Finance Committee, which helps govern the proposed legislation. Reps. Brendan Boyle and Dwight Evans sit on the House Ways and Means Committee, which would help advance the bill in that chamber.
Lately, there’s even been talk about resurrecting one of the dreamier New Deal programs, the Federal Writers’ Project, which put unemployed teachers, reporters, novelists, librarians, poets, and folklorists to work on a big, communal publishing venture that held a mirror up to America. Not surprisingly, a lot of that talk has been from writers—but not all of it. In May, Representatives Ted Lieu, of California, and Teresa Leger Fernandez, of New Mexico, introduced the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, legislation that would create a grants program, administered by the Department of Labor, to hire journalists and other writers struggling with pandemic layoffs or the vicissitudes of the gig economy. (Lieu took inspiration from an op-ed written by David Kipen, an L.A.-based writer and arts administrator with a self-professed “evangelical belief in the lasting lessons of the FWP.”) It would be a jobs program, Lieu told the Los Angeles Times—and, like its nineteen-thirties predecessor, it would be animated by a documentary impulse, gathering American stories, starting with those of the pandemic, that “might otherwise go untold.”
The Bowie Blade-News, a 41-year-old weekly newspaper in Bowie, Md., published its final print edition on Thursday, two months after its parent company, Tribune Publishing, was sold to the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital for $633 million. A brief, unsigned note to readers at the bottom of Thursday’s front page announced the closing.