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Our View: Urgency to protect, preserve local news never more obvious

“Bad information will always circulate on social media, like a virus that will keep mutating and spreading and never go away."

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Adam Zyglis / Cagle Cartoons

Two weeks ago, when Gov. Tim Walz added the News Tribune to his list of local newspapers in Minnesota he was making a point of visiting, he started the conversation with appreciation.

“Thank you during COVID for being trusted sources (of) reliable information for your readers,” he said to News Tribune Editorial Board members, gathered with him inside the library at Denfeld High School. “This was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. It became pretty apparent five, six months in that there was skepticism, there was division. I think some of it, legitimately, (was about) the science that we were starting to see and understand. But a lot of it became more political, and what we saw (were) people … turning to trusted local sources to try and get their information. They were looking locally. They were listening to local voices. And I know there was real effort (by the News Tribune and other newspapers). And I know a lot of you dropped (paywalls on COVID-19-related content) and things like that. Really grateful for that. It was a big deal.”

The News Tribune was among many newspapers around the country — most newspapers, in fact, if not all — that recognized the urgency of the public-health emergency and provided free access on their websites to critical information. That continues, especially amongst local news outlets which faithfully have been serving their communities for generations.

Readers noticed. Readers responded.

“Americans turned en masse to local newspapers for trusted information about the virus, health care, testing and relief programs,” Brier Dudley, editor of the Seattle Times’ Save the Free Press Initiative, wrote in a column just last week. “News outlets rose to the challenge of informing communities.”

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Did they ever. In April 2020, a month or so into the shutdowns and fears, a Pew Research survey, as part of its American News Pathways project, found that more than 60% of Americans were following news about the outbreak as much locally as nationally. And 23% said they were paying more attention to local news, compared to just 15% who said they were more focused on national headlines.

“In the same survey, nearly half of U.S. adults (46%) named local news outlets as a major source for COVID-19 news — more than the share who named several other groups, including President Donald Trump and the coronavirus task force (31%),” the center reported last summer. “Americans also see local news outlets as more credible sources of COVID-19 information than the news media in general. In a survey conducted June 4-10 (2020), half of U.S. adults said their local news media get the facts right about the coronavirus outbreak almost all or most of the time, compared with 44% who said the same about the news media overall.”

Despite all that faith in local journalism, newspaper closures and the losses of local journalism jobs have surged in recent years. As Dudley pointed out and lamented, thousands of communities no longer have a local news outlet. The International Falls Journal — and not long before the “Daily Journal” — was among the latest to fold, in late June.

“Many remaining papers are ghosts, with little investment in journalism and absentee owners milking them to death,” Dudley wrote. “No wonder many people turn to social media for news, even though surveys have found they don’t necessarily trust what they find there, or to cable TV channels peddling resentment and distrust.

“Americans who primarily get news from social media are less knowledgeable, more likely to get facts wrong about the virus and more likely to have heard a conspiracy theory about the pandemic, Pew Research found last year,” Dudley continued. “Fortunately, only about 18% of Americans ‘primarily’ get news from social media. … Facebook is a ‘regular’ source of news for 36% of Americans, and among those who see news there at least rarely, 59% expect it to be largely inaccurate. ...

“Bad information will always circulate on social media, like a virus that will keep mutating and spreading and never go away,” wrote Dudley. “To fix the knowledge crisis prolonging the pandemic, (President Joe) Biden should address (the) harm (that) digital platforms are causing to the nation’s news and information infrastructure.”

The president and Congress have two prime opportunities to do just that — now.

The bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act would provide tax credits to households that subscribe to local newspapers and to publishers that employ journalists pursuing and sharing truth and facts, according to Dudley.

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And the Journalism and Competition Preservation Act — which has as one of its main sponsors U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — would enable small and large news outlets to negotiate content usage agreements with digital platforms like Google and Facebook.

Right now, those tech giants are getting rich republishing local content, while the local outlets are bearing all the costs of newsgathering without reaping the profits.

“Individually, there’s no way newspapers can wield enough economic heft to negotiate effectively with the online giants to preserve the viability of their operations,” the Forum of Fargo, North Dakota, editorialized last week in support of the Journalism and Competition Preservation Act’s immediate passage. “The siphoning of advertising dollars from the giant online platforms is a major cause of the financial distress plaguing newspapers. The (legislation) addresses that gross imbalance by providing a ‘safe harbor’ from antitrust laws so publishers can join together to negotiate (in an attempt to recapture) subscription and advertising dollars. …

“At the same time, it would protect and preserve Americans’ access to the news they need to inform their lives.”

Perhaps never has the need to protect and preserve local news been more obvious than during the pandemic. Consumers of reliable news recognized that. Gov. Walz continues to see it. Now Congress and the president can do something about it.

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