Should media outlets that commit to covering local news receive a tax break from the Virginia state government?
A local legislator believes so, but he couldn’t get enough colleagues to go along.
Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington-Fairfax) patroned a bill that would have given tax credits to news organizations for employing those gathering community news. Publishers (of print or online publications) would receive credits of $5,000 or 10 percent of the wages of the employee, whichever was less, in the first year, with the figure declining in future years.
“This bill ultimately is about supporting a local press and the small businesses that advertise in those small local papers,” Lopez said during the Jan. 23 meeting of a subcommittee of the House of Delegates Finance Committee.
“An informed citizenry is what keeps us a vibrant society,” said Lopez, bemoaning the decline of local news coverage across the commonwealth in recent years.
The bill also had a provision offering a tax credit to small businesses that advertise in local media, be they newspapers, television, radio or online. The maximum amounts of the credits would be $5 million to publishers and $10 million to advertisers per year.
The measure picked up the support of the Virginia Press Association.
“Local newspapers are the backbone of our commonwealth,” said Aimee Perron Seibert, a lobbyist for the organization, urging legislators to “do what we can to keep local journalism live.”
“So many people love reading their local news,” said Seibert, who believed that dangling the prospect of a tax break at publishers “would actually encourage the bigger papers” to focus on local coverage.
(The press group was the only organization to weigh in, pro or con, on the measure. No individuals spoke to the bill during the hearing.)
A backer of the bill was Del. Candi Mundon King (D-Dumfries), who bemoaned the growing number of what are called “news deserts” – communities that have lost their local news outlets.
“This impacts a lot of people,” Mundon King said. “I hope [this bill] makes it out.”
But make it out of the subcommittee, the bill did not. It was defeated on a 5-3 vote.
Among those voting against advancing the bill to the full committee was Del. R. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), who many years ago was a journalist at a string of local newspapers.
“I have some reservations about a government-supported press, which is what we’re talking about,” said Ware, who noted that some of the financial and readership wounds in the news business have been self-inflicted.
And, Ware said, the close-to-their-communities local newspapers seemed to be hanging on. “They are surviving somewhat more than some of the larger dailies,” he said.
The only local member of the subcommittee, Del. Rip Sullivan (D-McLean-Arlington), voted to support Lopez’s measure.