Back when she was lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul stopped by The Star for an informal tour on which she seemed genuinely interested in how the paper was put together each week and about how changing economic forces have affected news-gathering organizations. Now, Governor Hochul has a chance to pass a critically important lifeline to local journalism as negotiations on New York State’s 2024 budget come down to the wire.
A bill passed in the Legislature at the beginning of the year would for the first time create a tax credit for news employers, based on their staffs’ individual salaries. Publishers could use up to $50,000 per employee per year, through 2029, against any corporate income tax they ordinarily might have to pay. As the bill’s backers see it, it would benefit reporters, photographers, and production personnel by freeing up cash that would otherwise go to Albany. Of course, to be of use, a news organization would have to be profitable to take advantage of the tax credit.
A similar measure was included in the failed 2021 federal Build Back Better Act. Among the criticisms of the provision was that it was an attempted government handout by Democrats to their allies in the media, as The Wall Street Journal editorial page claimed. That bill went further, including an up-to $250 annual personal income tax deduction for local news subscriptions — something that would have been a boost to newspapers and news websites whether they were in the black or not.
Supporters of the New York Local Journalism Sustainability Act have pointed out a range of generous tax credits already in the 2024 budget, such as $92.5 million for musical theater productions in New York City and an identical amount for the Olympic Regional Development Authority for facilities upgrades in and around Lake Placid. Also expected in the final draft is an annual $700 million film production credit that would last through 2034. The New York State Council on the Arts, which already administers about $100 million from the state, would get an additional $40 million to distribute in grants.
Newspapers, radio, and small-market television have themselves suffered over the years, as internet giants like Google and Facebook vacuum up advertising dollars while producing nothing themselves. Neither of the multibillion-dollar corporations employs journalists to any meaningful degree. Both profit vastly by selling their own advertising around work produced and paid for by others. It has been a devastating one-two punch for many old-fashioned media businesses — first they skimmed away readers, then they took the advertising away. And because of the scale at which Google and Facebook operate, they can market ad spaces at rates far lower than those which could sustain a traditional newsroom. The effect has been that in New York State alone, the number of weekly newspapers has fallen fast — from 439 in 2004 to 249 in 2019, for example.
Strong local news builds and supports strong and informed communities, and where that is missing, communities suffer.
As good as the current New York proposal might sound, it is a far cry from what has been put in place in the European Union, where more than 1,000 news publishers are paid directly by online platforms, including Google, for the use of their content. Essentially, Big Tech is forced to share revenue with the people and organizations actually producing the content it previews and links to. Given United States politics, however, and antipathy for the news media on the right, this kind of solution would seem unlikely, but it is worth working toward.
Similarly, pass or fail, New York’s Local Journalism Sustainability Act should be seen as just a starting point. Rather than handing a possible windfall to publishers, a better, more effective plan would be to offer tax credits directly to the reporters, designers, and support staff who make it all possible.