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July 30, 2019; Policy Matters Ohio

In a welcome respite from the too-frequent articles bemoaning the death of local newspapers, Policy Matters Ohio has published policy recommendations that would support the local news as a “public good,” central to the health of our democracy.

The occasion, unfortunately, is the newly announced closing of Youngstown’s 150-year-old paper, The Vindicator—just one casualty in a 32 percent reduction over 15 years in the number of newspapers in Ohio. The author writes that Ohio “has been ground zero for newspaper mergers and consolidations. That trend is likely to intensify with GateHouse Media—owner of the Columbus Dispatch, the Akron Beacon Journal, and others—making a play to purchase Gannett, which owns the Cincinnati Enquirer and 10 other Ohio papers. After such mergers, many newspapers become “ghosts” of their former selves, struggling to cover local news with reduced staff.”

This, they say, is terrible for democracy, citing research that indicates newspaper closings correlate with lower levels of voting and other forms of civic engagement and government debt and inefficiencies. They argue for state legislatures to adopt policies that can help save local media. Among them:

    • The General Assembly should build on its longstanding appropriations and boost support for public broadcasting by $5 million a year. Stations in Youngstown and other areas that have lost traditional media could also apply for funds, which like the existing funds could be administered through the Broadcast Educational Media Commission.
    • State legislators should follow the lead of their counterparts in New Jersey and invest in efforts to strengthen local journalism through collaboration with educational institutions and community organizations.
    • Ohio should examine other public policy solutions to the crisis in local journalism.
    • Congress should approve legislation allowing traditional media enterprises to become nonprofits, assuming there are guardrails to ensure that the priority is public service and investment in news coverage; and
    • A national tax should be enacted on the multi-billion-dollar online platforms like Facebook and Google that dominate digital advertising. The money could be used to create an endowment to support independent journalism. Ohio should not provide additional subsidies like those it has given these companies in connection with data centers set up in the state.

While these are hardly the only potential responses, they make a good start. Readers should feel free to add to them.—Ruth McCambridge