By Charles F. Champion

This piece ran in The Bay Area Reporter on Monday August 17, 2020

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The California News Publishers Association, of which the Bay Area Reporter is a member, is advocating for AB 323, which would provide relief to local journalism.

A brand management and crisis communication professor I know at a leading university contends that brands reside in the minds of customers, not at company headquarters. So, when crisis strikes, he argues, protecting the brand boils down to this: protecting your customers.

The California News Publishers Association, an organization of news publishers and editors, is charged with protecting the “brands” of 450+ California newspapers. We’ve been fighting against a rising tide of newsroom closures as the COVID-19 wave breaks over our members’ businesses.

We’re advocating for passage of Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio’s (D-Baldwin Park) Assembly Bill 323 to get relief and prevent job losses, small business failures, and threats to freedom of the press. All valid and prescient rationale, of course. But I suspect that some see the arguments as self-preservationist: it’s just business trying to protect its profits.

In truth, however, our advocacy is a plea to protect our readers, the people who rely on news reporting to inform their daily lives as citizen-activists, consumers, foodies, artists, travelers, and sports fanatics, to name few. 

We tend to take news — and free press — for granted in our country. It is in our constitutional DNA, so we rarely consider life without it. But we may have to. Due in large measure to the financial impact of the pandemic and the increased costs of new employment laws in California, the death knell is sounding for dozens and dozens of community and ethnic newspapers.

We’re working to keep their presses running and protect readers from the crushing impact of “news-less” communities, public information deserts, in effect.

Imagine Colusa County with no source of reliable information on tax increases, zoning changes, public health, and criminal justice. Think of decisions on school safety, elder care, homelessness, and property development being made without a newspaper to cover the stories and gauge, monitor and track community consensus or dissent.

What if Colusa County didn’t have a watchdog on public corruption, law enforcement, and the latest internet scam. What if voters had to go to the polls not knowing what candidates really stand for? And try to imagine morning coffee without an opinion page to get the blood running (or boiling); or letters from neighbors to express agreement and joy, dismay and disappointment?

And that’s not all. Think about weeks without movie reviews, obituaries, columnists, and cartoons; Saturdays without the whole story on last night’s high school sports games; or Sundays without feature stories on community events, places to go, and things to see.

To some, losing these newspaper-delivered information assets may seem inconsequential. There are plenty of other news outlets: radio and TV, social media, blogospheres, etc.

But readers hardly find them adequate. They want more than sound-bytes and tweets from untrustworthy trolls. They want the credible — and more expansive — coverage provided by working journalists at local newspapers.

According to the Pew Research Center, “an overwhelming majority of adults say it is at least somewhat important for journalists to understand their community’s history (85%) and to be personally engaged with their local area (81%), and at least four-in-ten deem each very important.”

Pew’s research is more than a data point. It is a description of the relationship between readers and reporters that is at the heart of our free society. With as many as 20% of the state’s newspapers on the financial cliff, the relationship is in jeopardy in many communities, most of which have only the local paper to gather and report news.

But the relationship doesn’t have to end. Together, readers and newspapers can save local journalism by telling representatives in Sacramento that we strongly support Rubio’s AB 323. Passing it will bolster local news outlets by granting greater access to state advertising and more time to adjust to independent contractor laws.

Just contact your Assemblyperson and state senator today and say, “Vote for AB 323 to save local journalism in my hometown.” You can also post on their Twitter and Facebook pages. Here is the contact information:

Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco): (415) 557-3013, TwitterFacebook.

Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco): (415) 557-2312, TwitterFacebook.

Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco): (415) 557-1300, TwitterFacebook

There is a saying that goes, when we take things for granted, the things we are granted get taken. Our association is working very hard to make sure it doesn’t apply to local newspapers in this case.

In the meantime, we know the Bay Area Reporter will do what it has been doing every week: keep you abreast of the news and in touch with events that affect your daily lives.

Charles F. Champion is a former community newspaper owner/publisher and currently is president and CEO of the California News Publishers Association.

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