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Ruth Bass: With democracy in peril, Congress needs to support local news by passing the Build Back Better bill

folded newspapers hanging from conveyor (copy)

A portion of President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill would provide $1.67 billion over the next five years for newspapers, websites, radio and TV and other outlets that primarily cover local news.

Answer: "Jeopardy!"

Question: What is one of America’s favorite TV game shows?

Let’s try it locally.

Answer: Where mold threatens historic site.

Question: What is St. Stan’s, Adams?

Answer: Clutter of white sticks on North Street.

Question: What are markers on new bike route?

Answer: Octogenarian ski area rejuvenated.

Question: What is Bousquet?

Answer: The Checkup.

Question: The Berkshire Eagle’s daily virus report.

Answer: Where to have a say on schools, roads, fire departments.

Question: What is town meeting?

Without a local newspaper, the information above is not publicly available. The questions will still be asked — at post offices, among dog walkers, at the grocery store, in texts and during phone calls. And the answers may or may not be reliable.

It’s somewhat foolish to make the case for subscribing to the local newspaper in this space, since anyone reading this column has subscribed to reputable journalism. In addition to The Eagle, frequent winner of Newspaper of the Year in New England, South County has The Berkshire Edge, a professionally produced online publication. In Richmond, on a smaller scale, subscribers to the monthly Richmond Record get insight on local affairs from a carefully edited newsletter produced by volunteers.

The point is that The New York Times doesn’t tell you who made the honor roll, who is missing on Mount Greylock, who won the wrestling match at Mount Everett, whose restaurant will open next weekend, whether a bridge near you is closed, who has died. Your local paper does all that and more.

One part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill would give a real boost to newspapers that focus on local news. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act provides for a payroll tax credit, which would help to keep them viable. Is it important? As Thomas Jefferson said in 1787, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

The 6 o’clock national news on TV, or whatever other time viewers choose, is not enough. In a minuscule number of minutes, network anchors dip into the events of the day. And on the computer, various sources give thumbnail reports on national stories. In addition to being only a fraction of what’s happened on a given day, these outlets don’t include what’s going on down the street or around the corner — unless a major disaster has struck the Berkshires.

The payroll tax credit will help keep local news in front of us. As Penelope Muse Abernathy of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism put it in a New York Times report, the credit “acknowledges that democracy starts at home.” And democracy needs an informed citizenry, while every dictator wants to keep the public in the dark.

The aid would provide $1.67 billion over the next five years for newspapers, websites, radio and TV and other outlets that primarily cover local news. If eligible, a paper could get up to $25,000 for each locally focused journalist they employ in the first year and $15,000 in each of the next four.

As The Times reported: “News outlets across the country have struggled for decades, as the rise of digital media slowed their once-dependable streams of revenue — print ads and classifieds — to a trickle. With few exceptions, those publications have not made up the difference with digital advertising, an industry dominated by Google and Facebook.”

According to researchers, 2,100 newspapers have shut down since 2004. And the number of journalists at newspapers fell from 71,000 in 2008 to 31,000 last year, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. The federal subsidy for newspapers would make new hires affordable.

In a world that wallows daily in rumor and conspiracy, a reliable free press becomes more essential than ever. And its value locally cannot be underestimated. It’s something Eagle readers already know, so, this column is the proverbial preaching to the choir.

What’s needed is to spread the word. Reputable commentators are saying our democracy is threatened. The answer to that threat lies in the success of the paper that Kathy Butler Wells pops into a green tube at the bottom of my driveway as she makes her rounds in the wee hours. If democracy is in jeopardy, it’s not a game.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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