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Opinion

Editorial: Newspapers are already struggling. California might make things even worse

Paperboys — and papergirls — are rapidly fading in the rearview window of progress, largely due to the industry’s shift from afternoon to morning papers and more consolidated, centralized distribution systems. But even as bicycle-riding kids gave way to sedan-driving adults, one aspect of the job remained the same: The people delivering the paper were independent contractors, able to work in multiple jobs for as many companies as they could fit into their schedule. That’s been true for decades.

Now, however, a state Supreme Court ruling threatens to disrupt that system, posing a serious threat to California’s newspaper industry, including both its big-city dailies and the smaller papers that serve readers in far-flung and sparsely populated communities. These papers are the backbone of America’s free press; they cover local governments, holding politicians and policymakers accountable. They are a critical part of our country’s democracy and deserve a measure of protection at a moment when the industry is already struggling financially.

In Dynamex Operations West vs. Superior Court, the state’s highest court last year ruled that a company must treat workers as employees rather than independent contractors unless it can show that the workers aren’t under its “control and direction,” the work performed is “outside the usual course” of the employer’s business, and the workers usually do the sort of work the company is hiring them to do. Once categorized as “employees,” they would be entitled to workplace protections and benefits.

The California Legislature is now poised to pass a bill (Assembly Bill 5) that would write the Dynamex ruling into state law. While most of the debate about the bill has surrounded “gig economy” companies like Uber and Lyft, whose businesses revolve around independent contractors, the measure (like the court ruling) is problematic for companies across the state — including the Los Angeles Times — that have relied on outsiders to carry out small but vital roles. Forcing newspaper distribution companies to classify as employees the drivers who spend a couple of hours a day delivering papers before heading off to other jobs would add considerable cost to newspaper delivery and may cause newspapers to shrink their delivery areas or even end delivery of the papers. The end result would be a further handicapping of the newspaper industry, hindering access to the news and further shrinking the advertising revenue that is dependent on the number of households that subscribe.

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Newspapers across the state also rely on freelancers to provide more diverse viewpoints — for example, by writing regular op-eds or columns. AB 5 could limit those contributors to 35 submissions per year, which all but rules out regular columns written by a local high school coach or other nonprofessional journalist, while limiting the opportunities for freelance photographers.

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), has agreed to provide a laundry list of carve-outs for industries and professions that have historically operated with or as independent contractors, including healthcare providers, real estate agencies, law firms, barber shops, tax preparers and pet care services. Our industry deserves the same treatment.

We understand why the Legislature wants to protect workers from abusive business arrangements designed to circumvent an employer’s duties. But lawmakers shouldn’t let the Dynamex ruling force newspapers to upend the approach they’ve taken to delivering their product since the days they gave teenagers on bikes their first steady income.

Everyone knows that big newspapers as well as small ones have been shedding staff and fending off bankruptcy in recent years as a result of declining ad revenues and shrinking circulation. Add to that the constant barrage of attacks from President Trump, who views newspaper journalists as “enemies of the people,” and the particular need at this moment in history for accurate, trustworthy journalism to hold our leaders accountable. The last thing California needs is for its Legislature to deal another devastating blow to our industry.


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