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As Deadline Looms, Local Journalism Sustainability Act Advocates Seek FY’25 State Budget Inclusion

Chelsea Community News, Scott Stiffler, March 29, 2024

What do the bald eagle, gray wolf, and American peregrine falcon have in common? Well, besides a reputation for majestic poses based largely on postage stamps bearing their illustrated likeness, “Each faced the brink of extinction and have now rebounded,” crowed a December 28, 2023 featured content article published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of theEndangered Species Act.

Fast forward to present-day Albany—where conservation-minded legislation of a different kind existsin the form of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. First introduced in 2021, its sponsors—NYS Assemblymember Carrie Woerner (Saratoga-D) and Chelsea’s own NYS Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal (Manhattan-D/WFP)—have succeeded in making the Act part of the NYS Senate’s One House budget resolution. With the budget passage deadline of April 1 fast approaching, lawmakers and NYS Governor Hochul continue to negotiate behind closed doors, while advocates on the local levels work to ensure the Sustainability Act doesn’t go the way of the dodo.

This legislative approach to conservation comes at time when heavy losses have already left their mark on community-based journalism. “More than 3,000 newspapers have shuttered across the country since 2004—and New York newspapers have been particularly hard hit,” reads a March 19 press alert from the recently formed Empire State Local News Coalition (a statewide advocacy group comprised of 150+ local print and digital newspapers). Since 2004, notes the Coalition, New York’s statewide newspaper count went from 501 to 260 (30 of those losses happening in 2022 alone). “A quarter of New York’s counties are down to their last newspaper,” the Coalition’s alert states, adding, “Orleans County recently became the first in the state to have none.”

Among the top contributing factors when a newspaper ceases publication is the sharp decline in advertising revenue. Add to that the pandemic era’s mass exodus of advertisers—concert, sporting, and entertainment events, churches, restaurants, theaters, and bars—whose combined business had long been the bread and butter of the hometown newspaper’s bottom line. Paid subscriptions have also dwindled, alongside a steady rise in competition from online destinations where news, like so many other things, is free for the taking.

In its current form, the Act establishes a refundable tax credit to news organizations with 100 or fewer journalists (50% tax credit against the first $50,000 of an employee’s salary, capped at $200,000 in total). Statewide, the cap is $20 million. Eligible print, digital, and broadcast news outlets must be in existence for at least one year, focus on local news, and employ at least one journalist whose output is exclusive to the outlet’s area of coverage. (Said the New York Press Association (NYPA) in a March 18 email to its membership, “Remember, this is a refundable tax credit, meaning that you can benefit from the entire credit even if you have zero tax liability.”)

Julie Fedler, ad director at Capital Region Independent Media (a Local News Coalition member), recalled that “While we are proud we haven’t missed an issue since COVID, we all know that local newspaper subscriptions were already dwindling. Having less local reporters hasn’t inspired new subscribers, but we pivot and continue to strive to serve our communities.” Passage of the Sustainability Act, says Fedler, “would put feet on the street to engage with our communities, to deliver our people the news they deserve, and to give them a voice.”

This projected result is of particular interest to Sustainability Act co-sponsor Senator Hoylman-Sigal, who says the decline of state capital-assigned reporters over the years has made local media’s role more important than ever. “Community news outlets,” he notes, allow electeds to “communicate with constituents about the work we do” while “shining a bright light on government that holds us accountable. What we do in Albany needs to be scrutinized.”

Read More: Chelsea Community News