16-04-22-CSUSB--Thomas Corrigan, Asst. Professor, Communication Studies, CSUSB, at California State University, San Bernardino on Friday, Apr 22, 2016. Photo by Robert A. Whitehead/CSUSB

Ghostly specters haunt California’s Inland Empire. They appear at our doorsteps and in our news feeds as pillars of the community — some of our local newspapers While they may look like the “local rag,” a closer examination reveals them as apparitions. And that should send a shiver up the spine of anyone who cares about local civic life.

The problem is that Inland Empire newspapers — particularly the local dailies — don’t produce much local news. Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina calls them ghost newspapers, publications that “have been so significantly diminished that their newsrooms are either nonexistent or lack the resources to adequately cover their communities.”

It's no mystery why. First, Craigslist came for the classifieds. Then, Facebook and Google captured nearly all the remaining ad revenue — and while using publishers’ content as bait!

The result? Since 2004, more than 2,100 newspapers have shuttered nationwide, and half of all local journalists have lost their jobs. Unfortunately, digital sites aren't filling the void. In fact, a 2019 study of 100 American communities found that newspapers still produce more local stories than TV, radio, and digital news sites combined.

In the IE, profiteering newspaper owners are also to blame. The San Bernardino Sun, Riverside Press-Enterprise, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and the Redlands Facts are all owned by Southern California News Group (SCNG). And SCNG is owned by Alden Global Capital — a “vulture” hedge fund that has snapped up scores of American newspapers, cut editorial staff and squeezed the industry of its remaining revenues.

In 2018, SCNG Executive Editor Frank Pine said their newsrooms “had been cut nearly in half” under Alden. And in 2020, the company blamed another round of furloughs and layoffs on pandemic-induced ad revenue declines. Get this, though: In 2017, Alden’s newspapers generated 17% profit margins! Meanwhile, SCNG editorial employees haven’t seen cost-of-living raises since 2010.

What are the implications for local news? As Pine explained, “With fewer reporters, we provide less local reporting. ... Communities that used to get three or four stories a week may now only get one.” And various studies find that as local newspapers contract, public knowledge and voter participation fall, and government costs and secrecy rise. In short, the crisis in journalism is a crisis in American democracy and civic life.

For a while, it seemed Washington was content to watch local journalism wither on the vine. But following massive pandemic-induced newsroom layoffs, Congress is finally considering whether to intervene to save local journalism.

Thus far, Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSC) has garnered the most attention and bipartisan support. The bill includes three main provisions:

• A $250 tax credit to subscribe or donate to local news organizations.

• A $5,000 tax credit for small businesses to advertise in local publications.

• And a payroll tax credit to cover up to half of some news workers’ salaries.

As Report for America’s Steven Waldman said, “The payroll tax credit … would be the most significant help for local news in decades if not centuries — and it is targeted at the exact right place: encouraging the hiring or retention of local reporters”

These subsidies aren’t just for daily newspapers, either. They would also provide much-needed support for other local news media, including digital sites like Inland Empire Community News, minority-serving outlets like The I.E. VOICE and First Nations Experience, non-profits like the Claremont Courier, local weeklies like the Redlands Community News and public media like KVCR.

As of Friday, Nov. 12, the bill had 63 co-sponsors — 49 Democrats and 14 Republicans. But none of the co-sponsors is from the Inland Empire. This is unfortunate given the state of local news. Area House reps should co-sponsor the bill and work to pass it, whether as a stand-alone bill or through budget reconciliation.

Some argue that we can’t afford the payroll tax credit’s 10-year, $1.67 billion price tag. Others say that journalism subsidies are incompatible with a free press. But this ignores that many other democratic countries invest large sums in public media and journalism while still ensuring editorial freedom and independence. And you can't have a free press if you don't have news outlets in the first place.

I, for one, would love to see legislators invest even more in local news — particularly public media, nonprofits and minority-serving outlets. For now, though, Inland-area House reps should preserve and expand existing local reporting by co-sponsoring and passing the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Otherwise, it will come back to haunt us.

Thomas F. Corrigan (or T.C.) is an associate professor in CSUSB’s Department of Communication Studies and coordinator for CSUSB’s Master of Arts in Communication Studies T.C. studies the political economy of the media, and he teaches courses on media institutions and digital media and society.