Governor Newsom Signs Newspaper Relief Bill But Rejects Expanded Press Access Measure

In this May 22, 2020, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, Pool)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — In a year headlined by layoffs and precipitous drops in advertising revenue, California newspapers struggling through the pandemic received a batch of good news from Governor Gavin Newsom late Wednesday.

Heeding warnings about the pending collapse of independent and minority-owned outlets, Newsom extended the industry’s deadline to comply with a new labor law that has hampered newspapers’ ability to retain freelancers and newspaper carriers.

Under Assembly Bill 323, newspapers will have an extra year to crunch the numbers and bring newspaper carriers off contracts and on as employees, as required by a landmark labor law passed in 2019.

In addition to the exemption that would allow newspapers to continue contracting with carriers until 2022, Assemblywoman Blanca 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. 

The bill’s author says the so-called Save Local Journalism Act will give ethnic and community newspapers a chance to stay afloat as the pandemic rages on in the Golden State.

Already devastated by a persistent trend of declining subscription and advertising revenues dating back to the Great Recession, the Covid-19 pandemic has been déjà vu for California newspapers. The strain is underscored by a recent analysis conducted by one of the bill’s main sponsors, the California News Publishers Association.  

According to the analysis, ethnic and community newspapers suffered a 56% average monthly loss in advertising revenue between April and June this year, while daily newspapers saw a 48% drop.

During an Assembly floor session last month, lawmakers highlighted the ongoing struggles newspapers were having in their home districts.

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.

After the state Senate cleared it unanimously, the Assembly ultimately approved AB 323 by a 71-4 margin. Newsom, a Democrat, signed the proposal Wednesday without comment.

Newsom did however reject a measure intended to give reporters better access to First Amendment demonstrations and protect them from being arrested on the job. 

Inspired by scenes of police officers pelting journalists with rubber bullets during recent George Floyd and police brutality protests, Senate Bill 629 would have allowed journalists to remain in areas closed to the public by law enforcement during protests. It also prohibited officers from arresting or citing journalists for failure to disperse or violating curfew orders during demonstrations. 

Sponsored by groups such as the California Broadcasters Association, California Black Media and the First Amendment Coalition, the “Press Freedom Act” was designed to give reporters the same access to protests as they are given while covering natural disasters.

While the Senate and Assembly passed SB 629 in overwhelming and bipartisan fashion, Newsom was ultimately swayed by opposition from law enforcement groups.

The state’s largest law enforcement groups argued the clause that reporters produce a business card or press badge to access or remain in police restricted areas could be manipulated by unscrupulous protesters. 

Groups like the California Association of Highway Patrolmen further warned it’s become much more difficult for officers to identify journalists due to technological advancements, and even complained about reporters being able to film on the go. 

“In regards to the carrying of professional broadcasting or recording equipment, today’s professional recording equipment is high-definition, digital and much smaller than in the past,” the association said in an opposition letter. “They are so small in fact that they look like cameras many people use for personal use. There is a reporter for the [Sacramento] Bee who rides around on a bicycle using his cellphone as a recording device.”

Just hours before a midnight deadline, Newsom echoed the association’s argument that people could take advantage of the protections and tossed the proponents’ First Amendment concerns. He said the bill could lead to “individuals who may pose a security risk-such as white nationalists, extreme anarchists or other fringe groups with an online presence” gaining access to protected areas.

“Law enforcement agencies should be required to ensure journalists and legal observers have the ability to exercise their right to record and observe police activities during protests and demonstrations,” Newsom said in a veto message. “But doing so shouldn’t inadvertently provide unfettered access to a law enforcement command center.”

Newsom added that he was committed to working with lawmakers in the future on other ways to improve press access.

Gabe Rottman, director of the Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement the group intends to work with Newsom and the Legislature to address Newsom’s concerns.

“We’re disappointed that Governor Newsom vetoed the bill, which would have codified protections preventing law enforcement from intentionally assaulting, interfering with or obstructing members of the media who are lawfully engaged in newsgathering during protests,” Rottman said. “Reporters who are covering protests are providing critical information to the public about what is happening, and recent actions by law enforcement to interfere with First Amendment protected activities are disturbing. We are ready to work with legislators and the governor to address his concerns while ensuring that journalists have the protections they need to do their jobs.”

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