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Cutter's bill
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A Colorado legislator pushes a law 'Supporting Local Media'

The news behind the news in Colorado this week

Corey Hutchins

Feb 4

Democratic Rep. Lisa Cutter, who was responsible for our state’s relatively new media literacy program, had an idea for a bill this year aimed at boosting the bottom line for struggling local news outlets.

The law would be two-pronged.

One part of it would require all Colorado agencies and departments to spend at least half of their advertising budgets with local news organizations. Another part would create an income tax credit of up to $250 for people who subscribe to local newspapers or donate to local nonprofit news sources, and $2,500 for small businesses that spend advertising money with such local news outlets.

The public relations consultant from Littleton filed her bill two weeks ago.

But one of those prongs is “in peril” Cutter says. After introducing the legislation on Jan. 21, she says she got a call from the governor’s office. Cold water, meet The Bill for an Act Concerning Supporting Local Media. Part of it, anyway.

The first part of the measure that would direct so much state advertising toward local news outlets is under some “severe duress,” and “at risk” Cutter said over the phone Wednesday, adding that she is likely to move forward without it. For now.

An approach directing more public ad dollars to help support financially faltering local news organizations doesn’t come out of the blue. In 2019, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order requiring all city agencies spend at least 50% of their print and digital ad budgets with local community and ethnic media outlets.

Colorado’s law would do so on a statewide level.

But “the governor doesn’t love it,” Cutter said about what she heard from the office of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. “We may need to table it and work on it more this summer.” She said the executive branch had concerns about meeting metrics and goals to reach advertising audiences. She says she plans to talk with state agencies and see what she might be able to do to make the bill more palatable down the line. Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said “the governor will review any bill that makes it to his desk.”

Cutter says she is still hopeful about the tax credit portion of her bill. (A proposed law in Wisconsin that would create tax credits for small businesses that advertise in local news outlets is moving through that state’s GOP-controlled legislature with bipartisan support.)

Because of the First Amendment, government getting in the business of news and journalism can be sticky. Journalists and non-journalists tend to be wary when the two intersect.

Since it deals with news organizations, Cutter’s media bill had to define what news organizations are. The bill does that by using a catch-all term, “local newspaper,” and defines that as a print “or digital” (that’s important!) publication that:

Primarily serves the needs of the state of Colorado or a regional or local community within the state.

Primarily has content derived from primary sources relating to news and current events.

Employs at least one journalist who lives in Colorado and “who regularly gathers, collects, photographs, records, writes, or reports news or information that concerns local events or other matters of local public interest.” (The legislation does not define “journalist.”)

This legislative initiative to help the local news business comes at a time when many local news outlets across the country (and in Colorado) are suffering. Ad dollars are flowing to large tech companies, print subscribers are aging out, hedge fund newspaper owners could be accused of vandalizing their own properties, and whatever stage of capitalism we’re in is just no longer supporting the production of original local news to the extent it used to. “I don’t think everyone really realizes how many hits the media has taken and how dramatic it’s been over the last couple of years,” Cutter said. “And I’m keenly aware of that.”

The Colorado bill also comes as conversations about the efficacy of increased public-sector support for local news have been happening here — perhaps more than anywhere over the past couple of years. (Click here for a run-down of those conversations, including the ways state government hasoffered financial support for news gathering during the Polis administration.)

Regardless of which portion of the bill survives and makes its way through this year’s legislative sausage grinder, a big question could be how state government decides which news organizations count and whether they employ a journalist. (The tax-credit portion of Cutter’s bill uses the same criteria for defining “newspaper,” and part of that criteria uses the word “journalist.”)

Our local news scene is not as simple, easy to navigate or understand as it once was. Would Boulder Beat or The NoCo Optimist count? How about Complete Colorado, which calls itself the “original news” arm of a nonprofit libertarian think tank? The progressive nonprofit Colorado Times Recorder? Axios Denver? The public benefit corporation Colorado Sun?

“That is sort of a tricky needle to thread,” Cutter said. “And that’s something we need to be concerned with for sure.” Those are the sorts of things she hopes to hash out before the bill gets to a committee.

Colorado Press Association CEO Tim Regan-Porter says his organization is backing the bill, and so far it’s the only media advocacy organization he knows of doing so, though he hopes others will join as the legislation progresses and changes. He says he expected the advertising portion of the bill might not make it and agrees with tabling that part until its supporters can have more discussions with state agencies and the executive branch. (He does support the concept.)

For this year, “we really like the tax credit portion,” he said, adding that it’s modeled after the federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Congress members and supporters who crafted that bill, he said, “wanted to make sure it went to real news organizations and not advocacy websites or people that might pop up just to take advantage of the credit.”

Regan-Porter said the CPA plans to talk with Cutter about provisions like, say, having media liability insurance be contingent for consideration as an applicable publication or journalist. (For an individual, that kind of insurance can run about $1,500 a year in Colorado.)

As for defining journalists, he said, “we’ve always been very hesitant” but it’s not without precedent. The judicial branch might choose to allow someone to bring a camera into a courtroom but not anyone, he said, public notice laws define news outlets for certain purposes, and an open records law might try to define what news is to an extent. (A judge in a South Carolina case I wrote about once said “courts must exercise caution in labeling a media outlet as legitimate or illegitimate” and likened the challenge to trying to decide “what constitutes a valid religion” when determining religious protections.)

But “for something like this you almost have to,” Regan-Porter said. “If you’re really trying to bolster news then you’re going to have to define it. We want to make sure, though, that it can’t be weaponized, it can’t be a partisan thing. But I think there’s some legitimate concern that an average person could start a blog and call themself a journalist for the purposes of this act.”

💡Now, here’s something to think about: This newsletter is free because of its underwriters. If it weren’t and you paid to subscribe to it — and I might ask you to one day — should you get a tax credit in Colorado?

I look forward to such a debate. And, if anything, a broader conversation about the efficacy of increased public sector support for local news in a state sometimes viewed as a policy pioneer.

“Much like many of the problems we face, this is … not one big solution,” Cutter says about why she filed her bill. “But just a lot of little solutions — a lot of things that we can do along the lines to help support local journalism.”

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