Elected officials like U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene are seeing firsthand the decline of local media.
DelBene recently spoke at a series of news conferences highlighting federal investments across Washington’s 1st Congressional District, which she has represented since 2012.
Only one reporter showed up when DelBene and local officials announced long-sought funding to replace a Granite Falls bridge, but “he took footage that he shared with others,” she said.
More came to events in Carnation and Lynnwood. But she said there were zero reporters at a news conference for a new child-care center at Lake Washington Institute of Technology.
Virtually every newspaper in DelBene’s district had layoffs, buyouts, furloughs or other cutbacks over the last two years. Remaining reporters at papers like The Bellingham Herald and Skagit Valley Herald do a good job, she said, “but I know it’s been harder and harder.”
Fortunately DelBene emerged as a key supporter of legislation to save and grow jobs in local newsrooms.
As vice chair of the House Ways and Means committee, the Medina Democrat helped get elements of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, HR 3940, included in the roughly $2 trillion budget reconciliation packaged dubbed Build Back Better.
“I am grateful for Rep. DelBene’s commitment to local journalism,” Dean Ridings, CEO of the America’s Newspapers trade group, told me, and praised her “ongoing interest in helping local newspapers.”
Build Back Better failed in December but not because of the journalism piece, which has bipartisan support and is co-sponsored by maverick West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
Now Congress is considering a smaller budget reconciliation package that could potentially pass this summer or earlier.
The LJSA was a tiny part of Build Back Better, under 0.1%, but would have made a huge difference. It would still save thousands of jobs if its tax credits for news outlets are included in the next reconciliation package.
These temporary credits would prevent further layoffs while the industry repositions for digital competition and awaits antitrust reforms. Credits would be $25,000 per journalist in year one and $15,000 the following four years, with an estimated cost around $1.6 billion.
In an interview, DelBene says she remains supportive of LJSA.
I hope other members of Congress return from district visits, and scarcely covered news conferences, appreciating the need to save what’s left of local news outlets.
DelBene, a former Microsoft vice president and startup CEO, is also focused on technology policy, particularly privacy regulations that she sees as a first step toward broader regulation.
An immediate priority is advancing the America Competes Act, to strengthen the domestic technology supply chain, including semiconductor manufacturing.
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q: Is work underway on a successor to Build Back Better?
A: We’re still looking for a path forward. I think it’s important because there’s so many issues we want to address.
Q: Will LJSA be part of that?
A: I’m very supportive of this policy so I’ll continue to make it work to be part of that package. I think we have a list of the key things we’d like to see and the question is how do we focus that. The best way forward is to do fewer things well for longer, provide certainty and stability. That is part of developing a path forward. For example, the local journalism piece has been very bipartisan so this hasn’t just been a partisan issue. Our focus should be on doing what’s right for the American people and what’s right for the country.
Q: Can this get done before Memorial Day?
A: The reality is that is that it’s better to get things done as soon as possible because it will get harder over time, so that would be my hope.
Q: Elon Musk is buying Twitter. Are you supporting any bills affecting content moderation or Section 230? Does Musk’s deal increase or decrease the need for such reforms?
A: I think that we have a bunch of issues with respect to technology that we need to tackle, and I’d like to see more work in Congress to really dig deeply on these issues. To me the most important place to start is consumer data privacy. I think it’s really foundational, giving people control of their data. That’s not the only thing we need to do, but I think that would be an important place to start because we still haven’t passed legislation on that and we’re behind. I know states have acted, but if we’re going to be leading internationally on these issues we’ve got to have a domestic policy.
Q: Europe is lapping us there. Do we need something like its Digital Markets Act or Digital Services Act to rein gatekeepers?
A: Well they have GDPR (general data protection regulation). They started with privacy. We still haven’t even gotten privacy legislation. If we don’t have domestic policy then in many cases people have no privacy protections with their data, and for small businesses, they’re trying to figure out the differences with the four (state) bills if they’re working in those jurisdictions. We need one consistent consumer data privacy law.
Q: Is that a step toward broader regulation of gatekeepers?
A: Clearly then we’ve got more work to do on artificial intelligence, facial recognition — yes, data portability, so many things. We’re not going to make great progress if we don’t start with privacy.
Q: How about online competition issues?
A: There’s absolutely more we need to do. I think we’re behind on tech policy and would love to see us do a good job. We have to be thoughtful, we have to make sure we have strong, thoughtful policy that serves us well going forward, and privacy is the place to start.