Congress IRS

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the IRS budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 8, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP)

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is doing her best to save local journalism. It would sure be nice if some Senate Republicans supported the effort to keep Americans informed.

Cantwell just introduced a bill that would provide a five-year lifeline to local news outlets and save thousands of journalist jobs. She’s planning a hearing in September and to get the bill passed by year end.

This is one of several measures needed to stop the death spiral of local news outlets, so they’ll survive until longer-term fixes, such as antitrust reform and new business models, take hold.

Cantwell detailed the journalism crisis with a bracing report last October, highlighting that most states lost half their working journalists as newspaper revenues fell 70% over the last 20 years.

Saving local journalism dovetails with another priority of the Edmonds Democrat, to increase broadband’s reach and accessibility. Both address a pressing question: How are Americans going to be informed in the coming decades?

“That’s what this is all about,” she told me during a far-ranging interview.

A former RealNetworks executive, Cantwell talks of the value of content and business models that build trust and communities. But the goals are now to be sure that people continue getting critical knowledge.

My take is that huge investments by the federal government are setting up the country for another good run of prosperity, innovation and strength. Newspapers need to be part of that, so we aren’t talking against each other and local communities thrive.

Cantwell put a finer edge on it.

“To me newspapers are community,” she said. “I think one thing we’ve found in the information age is, if we don’t have community you’re going to have more disruption. So you have to look for the vehicles that drive community and drive trust.”

She continued.

“Why? Because there’s so much misinformation or mischaracterization of information, it’s really important to have those trust and community builders,” she said. “And local journalism has got it, they’ve maintained it, that’s what our report shows.”

Cantwell introduced the Local Journalism Sustainability Act on July 22. It mirrors a House version with bipartisan support, including co-sponsorship by a Yakima Valley Republican, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse.

The act would provide $250 tax credits to households subscribing to local news outlets, plus tax credits to publishers employing journalists and small businesses advertising in local media.

Powerful Democrats are on board. Cantwell now chairs the Commerce Committee, and co-sponsor Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is Finance chair. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is also supportive, Cantwell said.

The pandemic made clear to Cantwell the need to preserve local media. While urging Yakima County residents to wear masks during a severe outbreak, she wondered who actually saw the messages, since only 42% of the county has adequate broadband.

“I thought, oh my God, what if there wasn’t the Yakima Herald, how much worse would the situation have been if you didn’t have connectivity and you didn’t also have the Yakima Herald? How would anybody have known anything about what was going on?”

Later Cantwell heard a Mississippi health official say, while speaking during an infection surge, it felt like she was yelling into the wind.

Cantwell knew from her report that state had one of the biggest newspaper declines, and it “also has a horrible connectivity rate.”

“I was like you know what, you are yelling into the wind … this is so critical,” she said. “It really does start to make you think about how we’re going to communicate about critical issues if you don’t have the newspapers and you don’t have the broadcast entities and the people to carry the information.”

Democrats may be able to push the local-journalism bill through alone. But it would be best to have at least some Republicans on board, supporting this constitutionally protected infrastructure of democracy.

As I’ve written previously, if the GOP is upset about coastal media and Facebook, why not save local news outlets that better reflect their conservative communities? Some House Republicans acknowledge this, and the economic and civic gains that local papers provide.

A dashboard produced by the University of North Carolina journalism school shows the disconnect in the 200-plus counties, largely rural and Republican, that now have no local news outlet.

Those “news deserts” are represented by 53 Republicans in Congress, only three of whom are supporting local-news bills. One is U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in northeastern Washington, the only member of Washington’s House delegation who isn’t yet co-sponsoring the local-journalism act.

The 16 Democrats representing news deserts aren’t doing much better; only two are supporting news bills, according to the dashboard.

Cantwell said she’s hoping Republican colleagues join her in supporting the local journalism bill, but it needs to get done either way.

“The challenge is there are still those who want to talk about President Trump and Section 230 provisions, and that will get a lot more press than ‘what is the state of your local newspaper?’ ” Cantwell said.

Yet Cantwell doesn’t want this to become a partisan disagreement and avoided saying things that would make it harder to get Republican support.

That seems to be a smart approach, and great leadership, addressing an information crisis that desperately needs a cooperative response.

Brier Dudley on Twitter: @BrierDudley. is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative. Its weekly newsletter: https://st.news/FreePressNewsletter. Reach him at bdudley@seattletimes.com

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