By a vote of 220 to 213, the House passed the Build Back Better Act earlier today. The $1.75 trillion bill now moves on to the Senate.
The vote, with one Democratic exception, was along party lines which means that all three WV representatives voted against the bill. Here is the statement by our local representative, David McKinley, on the bill.
McKinley’s vote was no surprise. Since he first ran for Congress in 2010 as a Tea Party Republican, McKinley has voted against almost all Democrat-supported, domestic spending proposals. And given the recent attacks by his primary opponent on one of those exceptions (his recent vote for infrastructure), it would have been surprising to see him vote for another Democratic bill.
But where will Ogden Newspapers land on this bill?
Long-time readers of Ogden papers will probably write this off as an obvious question on my part to ensure that everyone taking the test gets at least one question correct. Given the chain’s long-time conservatism, its animosity to most Democratic legislation, and Ogden-favorite McKinley’s vote against the bill, it certainly would be easy to assume that Ogden will strongly oppose Build Back Better.
Yes, all of the above are true but I would suggest that readers take a closer look at what is in the bill that the House just passed. In particular, readers might want to focus on something that was in, out, and finally, back in the final version of the bill:
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act
As the AP explained earlier this week:
The help would come in the form of a payroll tax credit for companies that employ eligible local journalists. The measure would allow newspapers, digital news outlets and radio and television stations to claim a tax credit of $25,000 the first year and $15,000 the next four years for up to 1,500 journalists.
Some math: online sources put Ogden Newspapers at 3,500 employees and my hunch is that the company would easily be able to call 1,500 of them “journalists.” That figures to be a $37.5 million tax credit the first year and $22.5 million for the next four years. That’s a total 5-year tax credit of $127.5 million. Even for Ogden’s owner, Robert Nutting, that’s a lot of money.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’re aware of my support for good local news. I’m also glad that the House left the aid to local journalism in the Build Back Better Act. That said, I have two problems with this legislation.
First, part of me fears that our local news would not get significantly better. Radio news lost its relevancy for most people many years ago – simply hiring more reporters may not increase listenership. On the other hand, our local television news may get better -- especially that provided by WTOV which has been willing to spend money on reporters. (Unfortunately, local viewers will have to wade through Sinclair’s right-wing-propaganda-passing-as-news segments.)
I wish I could be optimistic about how the passage of the bill might improve our local papers. In the 7+ years that I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve witnessed Wheeling’s papers get steadily worse. (I’ll try to do some documenting of this in December.) The Build Back Better Bill provides significant monetary support for hiring and keeping reporters but neither necessarily translates into better news reporting – it clearly depends upon how they are utilized. What if the added reporter is used to create back-to-back, front-page fluff stories that focus on a senator’s visit to a local park while ignoring any tough political questions? What if the reporter is used to help an Intelligencer favorite create a fake story about the need for more engineering degrees in the area? Will adding another reporter ensure that Democratic candidates get at least some coverage in their election bids? Yes, I have my doubts.
The owner of Ogden Newspapers, Robert Nutting, also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates. Similar to the goals of this journalism bill, baseball has in place a mechanism to help smaller market teams stay afloat and compete against those in large markets; richer teams pay a “luxury tax” to poorer teams. Does it work? Yes, sometimes. Smaller market Tampa Bay, for example, had the best American League record last season. Contrast that with Nutting's handling of the Pirates’ share. Nutting did the bare minimum; he fielded a low payroll team then unloaded (for a price) players whose value appreciated. (For more, please see any post under “baseball on the cheap” or “newspapers on the cheap” in the topics list below.)
Additionally, I have First Amendment concerns about Congress passing any law dealing with the press. (“Congress shall make no law . . . .”) Yes, the money would help struggling media but has the press forgotten the Trump presidency? Isn’t it possible that Trump or some future president might use the subsidies to threaten the media?
A number of things will have to happen for the Build Back Better bill to pass. (For example, see Manchin, Joe.) Until its fate is resolved, it should be interesting to watch how our local “newspapers” deal with this bill.
*The Wheeling Intelligencer has not recently mentioned the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Contrast that silence with the op-ed by Charleston Gazette-Mail’s executive editor, Lee Wolverton, on November 5 in which he argued for the bill’s passage. By the way, Wolverton deserves some credit for his honesty in describing the bill:
It might be appropriately labeled the Newspaper Welfare Act.