AB 323 as Amended Will Help Save Local Journalism

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Assemblymember Blanca Rubio’s AB 323 to help local newspapers by favoring them with government advertising and delaying the AB 5 requirements of worker classification for newspaper delivery drivers seemed incomplete, that is until late amendments were made to the bill last week that joined it to AB 2257

The idea behind AB 323, pushed fervently by the California News Publishers Association, is to “Save Local Journalism.” To that end, the bill discusses the tremendous drop in ad revenue local newspapers have suffered that goes well back before the recent coronavirus crisis. The text of the bill recaps revenue loss of nearly half of the advertising revenue for newspapers nationwide over nearly a decade. “In California,” the text tells us, “the immediate advertising revenue loss, which for many is one-half of total revenue, has been 50 percent to 70 percent. This could force dozens, perhaps hundreds, of newspapers out of business.”

As for the newspaper carriers, the bill says that distribution costs will increase 85% if the exemption for carriers is not extended and the independent carriers must be classified as employees. 

Beyond offering an extension for the carriers’ exemption from AB 5 for two years, AB 323 also requires that state agencies give preference to local news organizations, including ethnic and community news operations, for placement of marketing or advertising. The goal is to send government money to newspapers to help keep them afloat while giving readers information about government programs. 

The latter provision goes into a gray area of government helping certain businesses survive. This is, of course, not a unique circumstance, but when it comes to newspapers, a business expressly protected in the United States Constitution, there is a question that if newspapers become extremely reliant on government spending will that cloud aggressive news reporting and commenting on government actions? 

Still, if AB 323 was designed to save journalism, why didn’t it go further and take out the limits on the number of submissions freelance writers, editors, photographers and cartoonists could make that were part of AB 5’s worker classification definitions and opposed by many of the independent workers who were affected? That later hole was filled by joining AB 323 to AB 2257.

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez’s AB 2257 in combination with AB 323 lifts the 35 piece limit on writers, editors, cartoonists and photographers as long as the individual freelancers and the newspapers follow rules established by AB 2257. That is that the individual works under a contract, does not replace an employee performing the same task, does not work at the newspaper’s offices, and can work for more than one entity. In other words, a true gig worker. 

If the goal of AB 323 is to save journalism then freelance writers, editors, cartoonists and photographers exempted from the AB 5 limits should be included with the newspaper carriers and that now looks like it’s happening.  The amended AB 323 now states that it only becomes operative after AB 2257 is enacted. Since Assemblymember Gonzalez is the author and prime supporter of AB 5, it is safe to assume these changes to that law will go through. 

While a lot more work is needed to deal with the harms AB 5 created for the gig economy and independent workers, fixing the problems dealing with newspapers was important. Newspapers can be the spine that keeps communities together. They are long established vital institutions in our civic life. AB 323 as amended is better positioned to help keep these invaluable community resources running. 

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