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There is a lot of discussion about what news outlets and their readers can do to help the state of journalism. Recently, there has been serious discussion among legislators, both at the state and federal level, about what can be done.

In Washington, D.C., Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signed on as a co-sponsor of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which gives the bill real prospect for inclusion in the massive $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that will be considered later this month. Senate Bill 2434 would offer tax credits of up to $250 over five years to readers who subscribe or contribute to local print, digital and broadcast news operations. It would also offer tax credits to small businesses that advertise in those outlets (up to $5,000 over five years) and a tax credit (up to $25,000 per journalist in year one and $15,000 for the subsequent four years) to the companies themselves for hiring and retaining reporters, photographers and editors.

The House had taken up essentially the exact same bill in the last Congress – one which had 20 Republicans joining 58 Democrats as co-sponsors – with the exception that the tax credits didn’t apply to broadcast news outlets. On Monday, Sept. 13, the House Ways and Means Committee trimmed the tax provision for subscribers and advertisers out of its 2021 version of the bill but left intact the tax credit for newspaper companies with fewer than 750 employees, and passed it. This means that from the House side, it is to be included in the wide-ranging reconciliation package the Senate looks to try and cobble together and get approved in the next 45 days – undoubtedly without any Republican support.

The use of tax credits as a way of generating public financial support of local journalism is elegant and clever as it allows the market to determine which outlets will benefit. It will prove hugely impactful to help make local journalism a sustainable business.

We’ve long since gotten used to the idea of subsidies for agriculture, mining and timber harvesting as important ways of publicly supporting vital industries. In this current Build Back Better reconciliation bill being formulated in the Senate, the definition of infrastructure has been modernized and expanded beyond bridges and roads to recognize child care and greenhouse gas emissions reductions are appropriate places for public investments.

So too with journalism.

U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a co-sponsor of the House bill in the last Congress and a member of Ways and Means says, “The [tax credit] would help small publishers properly pay employees and revitalize local media outlets. By attaching that type of tax credit to the Build Back Better legislation, my Democratic colleagues and I on the Ways and Means Committee, once again, are proving that Congress can provide national solutions to help sustain our local journalism.”

Here in California, the Legislature wrapped up its 2021 term Friday, Sept. 10 and among the bills debated were a few that directly impact the free press, public records access and open government in the Golden State.

AB 268 was a bill that sought to give the next of kin the authority to seal autopsy records upon request. It became an important First Amendment fight as the Los Angeles TimesVentura County Star and Associated Press are suing Ventura County to gain access to the public records from the shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill, including 911 transcripts, body camera footage and autopsy reports. Autopsy reports have proved incredibly valuable public records in painting an accurate picture of the news during Covid, as they did in the George Floyd killing. The attempt by the Ventura County coroner to do a legislative end-run around the First Amendment proved unsuccessful, as the bill died in the State Senate.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, authored SB 98, which would require peace officers to allow credentialed media members access to areas that police have closed to the public during constitutionally protected free speech gatherings – i.e., protests. The bill, which is now awaiting the governor’s signature, also creates an expedited appeal process should a media member be detained and seek to be quickly released by the command sergeant on the scene.

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