As California communities juggle new spikes in COVID-19, the need for accurate and timely information is more important than ever. But without action by the California Legislature, a major source of that vital information – community newspapers – are now at risk.
A new report from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found a quarter of all U.S. newspapers have closed in the last 15 years, and that the revenue losses related to the pandemic may be the final straw for beloved community outlets. Dozens of papers have shuttered since the beginning of the pandemic, and the authors warn that dozens more – even hundreds – could close down by the end of this year.
Without local newspapers, accurate community journalism will become a thing of the past. We will face the reality of communities with minimal access to local news and, worse, the unrivaled spread of false information. We’ve seen this during the pandemic, with erroneous, unvetted conspiracy theories peddled by individuals without public health credentials. Without local newspapers, fact checking will not exist and misinformation will spread undeterred.
Without local newspapers, there will be no outlet to report on local elections, crime, schools, or jobs.
Without local newspapers, individuals will be less informed about the civic process and less likely to engage in improving their communities.
Here in California, newspapers are at a tipping point. More than 18 newspapers have suspended operations in the last five months, with more in the pipeline. While newspapers are building out their digital platforms and exploring new delivery systems, they also need to generate advertising and subscription revenue from print publications. Industrywide, newspapers are scrambling to survive by cutting coverage, furloughing reporters, and eliminating print publication on certain days of the week.
But even those actions may not be enough to save them from another, more unexpected threat: legislative inaction.
If the Legislature does not act before the end of this year, community newspapers will face another crushing financial blow: their exemption from a new state law, AB 5, requiring independent contractors like newspaper carriers to be classified as “employees” will expire and newspapers will face an average increase of up to 85 percent in distribution costs.
To absorb these costs, newspapers will be forced to respond any way they can – including reducing home deliveries, cutting long-standing features (the Appeal will be doing this starting Saturday – see side note), and raising subscriber costs.
Additionally, the current exemption allows newspapers carriers, who deliver papers for a few hours early in the morning to function independently – a role they overwhelmingly prefer. Most use their own car or arrange their own transportation. Carriers can currently independently arrange for friends or family members to cover their routes when they have conflicts – actions that clearly fall under those of an independent contractor. As an employee, they would lose this control.
And ironically, many of the positions that AB 5 was designed to protect – carrier and distribution positions – will be eliminated. This will cause disproportionate harm to families, women and individuals who depend on these positions for income.
The Legislature has not yet acted to preserve local journalism. But there is still time. Before the Legislature adjourns at the end of the summer, lawmakers must take action to save local journalism -- and preserve Californians’ access to reliable, trusted information.
Current legislation, Assembly Bill 1850 (Gonzalez), creates new employment exemptions for industries such as musicians and photographers. The Legislature must add newspapers to AB 1850, and grant more time for carriers to be exempt from AB 5.
At the same time, AB 1850 should be amended to include language to prioritize community newspapers for state advertising campaigns. These funds are already allocated, so there is no cost associated with this change. Establishing a preference for the placement of state agency public outreach advertisements in local and ethnic media outlets will not be enough to stabilize local publications entirely, but it will help them survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Accurate journalism during these historic months and the years of recovery ahead is essential as we rebuild the state and nation. And local reporting will always be a necessary resource to communities. At the Appeal, we are committed to doing our job of seeking and reporting on information that matters to you. Now the Legislature must do its job to save community journalism by amending and enacting AB 1850.
Our View editorials represent the opinion of the Appeal-Democrat and its editorial board and are edited by the publisher and/or editor. Members of the editorial board include: Publisher Glenn Stifflemire and Editor Steve Miller.