A new bill introduced in the Massachusetts House of Representatives aims to help the state’s ever-struggling local news outlets with their bottom lines.
The bill, introduced by Representative Jeffrey Rosario Turco in mid-January, would institute a new tax credit reimbursing any Massachusetts resident up to $250 a year for the cost of subscribing to local newspapers. The hope, said Turco, is that the bill would help to generate extra revenue for the state’s newsrooms.
”You can get a subscription and effectively it’s going to cost you nothing,’” he said. Turco, whose district covers Winthrop and Revere, said he was inspired to craft the bill after speaking with the leaders of the Revere Journal about some of the struggles their business is facing.
There are a few conditions: The publication has to primarily publish “original content derived from primary sources and relating to news and current events” concerning a regional or local community. The newspaper would also have to employ at least one local news journalist who resides in the community it covers.
The bill is based on similar efforts on the federal level. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act would have instituted a tax credit for subscribers, as well as a payroll tax credit for news organizations that compensate local journalists and a tax credit for small businesses advertising in local news outlets. The legislation has languished in Congress.
“If they can’t figure it out at national level, we should do something at the state level,” said Turco.
The next step is for the bill to be referred to a committee, such as the Joint Committee on Revenue, for review, said Turco, and it is likely several months before there is a hearing on the matter. It is unclear at this time how much the tax credits would cost the state every year, and it will be up to the House Committee on Ways and Means to conduct a fiscal analysis of the bill. Turco said he expects to have broad support.
”Nobody looked at me and said, ‘This is a crazy idea. This won’t work,’” he said. ”The reality is almost all of us have a local newspaper in our district. So almost everyone will benefit from this.”
What remains to be seen is whether a tax credit would substantially boost the state’s local news landscape, said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who has focused on its struggles.
“I wonder if it’s going to make so little difference on their taxes, that it’s really more symbolic than substantive,” said Kennedy, adding that the bill would likely not do much to help news outlets — such as most broadcast and radio stations — that do not charge for subscriptions.
Kennedy also raised concerns when the federal bill was floated, saying that a subscription tax credit may end up helping corporate entities as much as independent news organizations, since many chain-owned newspapers still operate local or regional coverage. He said that a payroll tax credit, which would help newsrooms compensate their journalists, may be more beneficial across the board.
However, the subscription tax credit, he said, is a good place to start.
“It’s really incumbent upon the states to try to do what they can to try to respond to the local news crisis,” he said. “Although I don’t think that government assistance is always the way to go, it can be important and also send a message to the public about how important local news is.”
With every county in the state having at least one paper and many smaller cities retaining a local newsroom of some sort, Massachusetts is better situated than much of the country when it comes to local news. And yet, there are still reasons for concern. A study by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media found that the total number of newspapers in Massachusetts shrank 27 percent between 2004 and 2019, and circulation dropped 44 percent in the same time period.
With this in mind, Turco said, the time is now to act to save what’s left of the local news scene.
“I don’t always like what they write,” said Turco, “but at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter.”