SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California newspapers struggling through the pandemic and ensuing recession will have extra time to comply with a new labor law forcing the industry to transform its workforce under a bill approved by lawmakers Monday.
The Assembly overwhelmingly voted to send the Save Local Journalism Act to Governor Gavin Newsom, calling it badly needed relief particularly for smaller, ethnic outlets that have seen a significant drop in advertising revenue since the pandemic stalled the state’s economy nearly six months ago.
Lawmakers said giving the industry an additional year to crunch the numbers and bring newspaper carriers off contracts and on as employees was necessary to prevent wholesale closures of niche outlets that provide critical information across California.
“I’m particularly concerned about the future of ethnic media,” said the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park. “African American, Latino, Asian and other ethnic newspapers could be the first to go. In addition, some counties in the state may become news deserts with no paper of record.”
Already devastated by a persistent trend of declining subscription and advertising revenues dating back to the Great Recession, the Covid-19 pandemic has further hindered California newspapers of all sizes.
According to an analysis by the California News Publishers Association, ethnic and community newspapers suffered a 56% average monthly loss in advertising revenue between April and June, while daily newspapers saw a 48% drop. To stay afloat, newspapers across the country have resorted to major layoffs and some have shuttered newsrooms or stopped offering print versions completely.
Rubio’s bill is intended to give the industry additional breathing room as it attempts to comply with a landmark labor law passed in 2019.
That law, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, was one of the most high-profile bills of the 2019 legislative session and aligned labor unions and Democrats against the gig economy and the minority Republican Party. Gonzalez said it was time for the Legislature to codify the ruling in Dynamex v. Superior Court and bring much-needed clarity to state employment law.
As a result, cash-strapped newspapers were suddenly left wondering how they could afford to go on a hiring spree and bring paper carriers on as employees. Distribution costs are often one of the largest items in the average outlet’s budget and a recent analysis estimated the average monthly increase for California newspapers could rise 60-85% under the new law.
In addition to the exemption that would allow newspapers to continue contracting with carriers until 2022, Rubio’s bill would require the Department of General Services to do an annual recap of how and where state agencies spent their advertising dollars. The goal is to encourage more advertising and grow agencies’ marketing presence in weekly and ethnic papers.
Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, noted the sudden drop in advertising dollars and said it forced a community paper in his district, the Easy Reader, to fire reporters. He also highlighted the pandemic’s strain on the Rafu Shimpo, the oldest Japanese American newspaper in the U.S. in publication since 1903.
“We need to figure out a way to help our community newspapers, our ethnic newspapers to survive,” said Muratsuchi.
The Assembly ultimately voted 60-2 to send AB 323 to Governor Gavin Newsom, but not before passionate resistance from Gonzalez, who said the Dynamex decision was specifically intended to protect professions like newspaper carriers. She was the only Assembly member to speak in opposition and claimed the one-year extension for the newspapers was unethical.
“Nobody else is speaking up for [newspaper carriers]; they have no lobby, they have no union, they have nobody to represent their views,” said Gonzalez on the Assembly floor.
Gonzalez claimed carriers often make as little as $3 per hour and argued that because the scope and timing of their routes are determined by the newspapers, they should be reclassified as employees immediately. Gonzalez urged her colleagues to join her in fighting for the apparent underdog.
“I understand the pressure of the newspaper industry. God knows they will write a lot of op-eds if we don’t do this,” Gonzalez said. “I will sleep well tonight because a group of individual workers who has nobody to speak for them, and never has, is not going to get my vote on this bill.”
After clearing both the Senate and Assembly in the last 24 hours, the bill advances to Newsom who has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto AB 323. Under recent amendments taken by the proponents, AB 323 will only become operative if a companion measure that removes the cap on the number of submissions freelancers can send to an outlet is also passed Monday.
Senators unanimously approved the companion measure — written by Gonzalez — Monday afternoon. Assembly Bill 2257 carves out further exemptions to AB 5 for musicians, fine artists, translators, freelance writers, landscape architects, multimedia journalists and others.
The bills now heads to the Assembly for a vote Monday evening.
Republicans proposed at least eight amendments to AB 2257 that would have expanded exemptions to tattoo artists, franchise owners and some freelance photographers. Senator Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, proposed an amendment to repeal AB 5 entirely but the move was soundly tabled by Democrats as were the other amendments.
Grove said she hopes Democrats will take up the Republican amendments during next year’s legislative session.
Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, said in the session he supports AB 2257 but that more is needed to repair the harm created by AB 5.
“The carveouts need to stop,” said Dahle. “There is some good work in [AB 2257] but those left behind will still be suffering. It’s about freedom.”
Over in the state Senate, lawmakers approved another journalism bill prohibiting law enforcement officers from arresting, assaulting or obstructing reporters covering protests and marches that are declared unlawful assemblies.
Senate Bill 629 by Senator Mike McGuire, D-Santa Rosa, shields journalists from financial penalties and citations for reporting on protests and allows them to contact a supervisor if they’re detained.
McGuire said the bill would apply to credentials journalists and reporters carrying broadcast equipment, noting that more than 500 reporters nationwide have been arrested or assaulted so far in 2020 while covering protests.
“This is a balanced approach in helping establish protection for First Amendment rights and ensuring reporters hold all of us in government accountable,” McGuire said.
Republican Sen. Andreas Borgeas of Fresno voiced concern during Monday’s session, saying the bill could overburden officers during stressful situations and may lead to partisan, unreputable reporters getting behind police lines.
“It seems like every Tom, Dick, and Harry puts on a badge and says they’re media when they just have a Facebook page,” said Borgeas, asking how the bill would better define the reporter role. “This would be putting law enforcement in a difficult position that could be exacerbating a volatile and fluid situation.”
The bill — which now heads to Newsom — was approved 32-2, with Democrats overwhelmingly supporting and Republicans largely abstaining.
Monday’s votes came as lawmakers worked furiously to clear a pandemic-induced backlog on the final day of the legislative session.