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Dudley: Congress, help save local news




Almost a year after launching in Bellingham, a rambling news startup is making a difference, informing voters and holding officials accountable. Cascadia Daily News, which publishes a weekly newspaper and daily report online, now has 10 staff, plus freelancers and freelancers, editor Ron Judd said.

His reporting contributed to the decision to suspend a sewage treatment project that would increase residents’ bills. It has also produced a “citizens’ agenda” for the upcoming elections, with readers helping to identify priorities. Judd said his reporting also appears to have spurred the emaciated local daily, part of a national chain owned by Wall Street types, to finally increase its local reporting.

Cascadia is still trying to unravel the mystery of building a strong digital business necessary for long-term sustainability and expanding its audience beyond a core of news-hungry readers. To me, that makes another great case for Congress to help, by passing the Journalism Preservation and Competition Act this year.

The bill would allow small and large outlets to collectively negotiate fair compensation from Google and Facebook. This would essentially force those dominant platforms to start paying the equivalent of a subscription for news content that adds value to their platforms.

Meanwhile, newspaper staffing has fallen 70% over the past 15 years and two newspapers a week are closing, according to a June report from Northwestern University Research. This preceded another wave of layoffs at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, which last week ordered remaining employees to take unpaid leave during the holidays.

“The JCPA is really designed to stop the bleeding and hopefully provide a path forward to make sure we can support and grow local journalism,” its main House sponsor, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, DR.I.

The Rhode Island Democrat said he expects the House to annotate the bipartisan bill after the midterm elections, and it will mirror a Senate version that came out of committee last month.

“There’s no good reason it can’t be done this Congress,” he said.

Cicilline said there was strong bipartisan support for JCPA because people recognize the industry’s “economic free fall” and that “big mainstream platforms have essentially taken a free ride on labor, content, generated by local news outlets.

The icing on the cake is how JCPA would not only support existing outlets, but also new businesses like Cascadia.

About 550 online news startups operate in the United States, but more than 90% are in major cities, few have sustainable business models and their growth is stagnating, Northwestern’s Local News Initiative found. That does little to fill the void created by the implosion of the newspaper industry, which has left thousands of rural and suburban areas with little or no local news coverage.

The stability would allow Cascadia to do more investigations, special projects and in-depth reports. This additional content would in turn help grow its audience and subscriptions, which it needs to do independently of JCPA.

Indeed, the approximately 6,000 remaining local newspapers and other news outlets ultimately need local support to survive.

They must also be paid for their work and given a fair chance to compete online, as the JCPA would if Congress did this year.

Brier Dudley is editor of the Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative.