Biden bill gives boost to local journalism

By: - November 15, 2021 5:36 am
(Carol Yepes/Getty Images)

(Carol Yepes/Getty Images)

Several years ago, Danny Peppers launched the Stewart County Standard weekly community newspaper with a graphic designer, a home equity line of credit and, he says, a prayer. 

“This is your paper,” read the headline of the very first edition, which was mailed to each of the 6,070 mailboxes in the county, a rural area on the Kentucky border just northwest of Nashville. There was a vacuum in local news before he stepped in, Peppers says, with no one to commemorate in print Dover’s Halloween festival, the winning high school cross country team or local government meetings.

“If there’s a story that breaks on Facebook — and there’s no way we’re going to beat Facebook — we’re going to go to the meeting and get the back story and get it right,” Peppers said. “If you just report what elected officials actually say, there’s enough entertainment in that.”

The Standard is one of the few new community papers to launch in Tennessee in the past two decades as declining advertising sales and the internet forced traditional media companies of all sizes into a tailspin from which they have emerged with smaller newsrooms and more limited coverage. 

A little noticed provision inside President Joe Biden’s $1.85 trillion spending bill aims to give a boost to community news organizations like the Standard. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, if enacted, would allow newspapers, radio and television stations to claim a payroll tax credit of $25,000 per employee for the first year and $15,000 for the next four years — an estimated $1.67 billion altogether. 

No one among Tennessee’s Republican delegation backs the measure, but it is one of the provisions of the overall Build Back Better package that has gotten broad support from Democrats in the House and Senate.  

There are at least 1,800 communities across the country that have lost their community newspaper in the past 15 years, according to a University of North Carolina study released just before the pandemic. 

A little noticed provision in President Joe Biden’s spending package is a measure to newspapers, radio and television stations  to claim tax credits, which could provide measurable aide to local media outlets.

No print outlet has folded in Tennessee in recent years, but at least one community newspaper became digital only and some daily newspapers have cut back to three days a week, according to Carol Daniels, executive vice president for the Tennessee Press Association, which has 128 newspapers as members. There are about 900 working journalists in Tennessee’s print media currently, she said.  

Peppers isn’t sure without talking to his accountant what kind of impact that would have on his paper, which employs one part time reporter in addition to Peppers. His wife, an elementary school employee, provides the bookkeeping, along with the couple’s health insurance. An office manager writes stories, too. 

“I could always use an investigative reporter,” Peppers said. “I’d love to have a reporter cover courtrooms. It takes everything we have to put out a 10 page paper, because we try to make sure no more than half is advertising.”

Dave Gould, owner of Main Street Media — which operates 13 newspapers in Tennessee, employing 36 reporters and editors — said the tax break could be a “game-changer” for local news. 

“I think it would not only help local media maintain local journalists, but in our case hire more,” he said. “Someone’s got to be in these communities going to community meetings and local basketball games.”

The tax break, if passed, would help not only small outlets but the state’s largest newspapers, including Gannett-owned newsrooms in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis. 

Maribel Perez Wadsworth, who runs the news division of Gannett, told the Associated Press last week the credit would be a “good shot in the arm.”

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.