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In recent years, the news business in Wisconsin has seen a lot of bad news. Dozens of newspapers have closed. Revenues are way down. Staffs are being trimmed. And “vulture” hedge funds are circling, threatening to pick clean the bones of this once robust industry. 

Dee J. Hall

But there is at least one piece of good news: A bipartisan bill working its way through the Wisconsin Legislature would help local news outlets by offering a tax break to small businesses that advertise in newspapers, TV or radio stations or online media in the state. 

The Wisconsin Local Media Advertising Tax Credit would offer credits to advertisers with fewer than 100 employees and less than $10 million in revenue. The credit would be based on 50% of the cost of advertising in local media, for a maximum of $5,000.

Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, and Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, former editor of the Dodgeville Chronicle, are co-sponsors of Assembly Bill 762.

“Having worked in the newspaper industry for 25 years, I think this proposed credit will make a real difference,” Novak told fellow lawmakers during a Jan. 19 Assembly Ways and Means Committee hearing. “I believe this advertising incentive creates a win-win scenario for small businesses that want to advertise, customers and workers, and for local media.”

Steve Waldman leads the national Rebuild Local News Coalition, which backs the measure. He said the Wisconsin bill could be a model for other states — and Congress.

“I think its significance is in the leadership and the nature of the coalition. It’s led by Republicans and backed by an amazing collection of groups — both news orgs and business groups (restaurants, banks, chiropractors, small businesses etc.),” wrote Waldman, who also is president and co-founder of Report for America. 

Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said the measure’s impact is twofold: helping businesses reach their customers, and supporting local journalism by increasing local advertising dollars. The state estimates the tax credit would save businesses at least $65.7 million a year in taxes — meaning twice that amount would be spent on ads.

In 2018, about 163,000 small Wisconsin businesses claimed deductions for advertising expenses, according to the bill’s fiscal note. The cost of the tax break could be “significantly higher” than $65.7 million if many of them claim the tax credit, it said.

Richard Lee, president of the Inter-County Cooperative Association, told lawmakers the bill would provide needed revenue to a newspaper group that saw ad sales drop 20% in two years.

The cooperative owns a weekly newspaper, the Inter-County Leader in Frederic, and five shoppers covering a 5,000 square-mile region. It was founded in 1933 by area farmers hungry for local information. Nearly 90 years later, keeping people informed in northwestern Wisconsin is still a struggle, Lee said.

Many of Lee’s readers get their TV news from Minnesota. And internet access is spotty. Without the ads he runs for available jobs, restaurant specials and grocery sales, Lee said, “Many of the small businesses don’t have a way to let the local residents know what is happening.”

AB 762 deserves to pass, because preserving the public’s right to know hinges on keeping local news outlets — and the local businesses that advertise with them — alive and well. 

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Dee J. Hall is the managing editor of Wisconsin Watch and secretary of the Wisconsin FOIC.

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Dee J. Hall / Wisconsin Watch

Dee J. Hall, a co-founder of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, joined the staff as managing editor in June 2015. She is responsible for the Center’s daily news operations. She worked at the Wisconsin State Journal for 24 years as an editor and reporter focusing on projects and investigations.

A 1982 graduate of Indiana University’s journalism school, Hall served reporting internships at the weekly Lake County Star in Crown Point, Ind., The Gary (Ind.) Post-Tribune, The Louisville (Ky.) Times and The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Prior to returning to her hometown of Madison in 1990, she was a reporter for eight years at The Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix, where she covered city government, schools and the environment. During her 35-year journalism career, Hall has won more than three dozen local, state and national awards for her work, including the 2001 State Journal investigation that uncovered a $4 million-a-year secret campaign machine operated by Wisconsin’s top legislative leaders.