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Op-Ed: AB 5 and COVID-19 are dire threats to California newspapers serving communities of color

A news vendor in 1964 sells the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the largest Black newspapers in Southern California.
A news vendor in 1964 sells the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the largest Black newspapers in Southern California.
(Cal State Northridge Center for Photojournalism and Visual History)

In this moment of reckoning with systemic racial injustice, our country’s ethnic media outlets are serving an important role that mainstream media alone cannot fill. Throughout the years, these outlets have spoken for marginalized and vulnerable communities, serving to improve civic engagement and support cross-cultural communication within American society.

Yet California’s ethnic media outlets are fighting for survival because of declines in advertising revenue, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, our industry faces another calamity if the flaws of Assembly Bill 5 — the new law that requires employers to reclassify most independent contractors as employees — are not fixed.

In California, more than 300 ethnic news outlets serve dozens of culturally and linguistically distinct readerships, from longstanding African American, Latino, Native American, Japanese and Chinese print publications to an ever-expanding list of digital platforms serving newly arrived immigrants and young people of color.

We complement mainstream newspapers with our perspectives and bring stories to life that are under-covered in daily newspapers. We are trusted messengers, providing readers with important information and perspectives that affect their daily lives: How do I maintain my cultural identity and assimilate into American society? How can I better communicate with my landlord, the police, the school district? Where do I pay my property taxes? What do I need to do to register to vote?

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The trouble with AB 5 is that it takes a cookie-cutter approach to contract workers. If the ethnic news media were forced to turn their freelance contributors into staff reporters, many would have to scale back their coverage or simply fold.

Last year, the Legislature recognized this problem and allowed freelance journalists to contribute up to 35 pieces a year to a single publication without having to become an employee under AB 5. Then COVID-19 hit — and along with it, a new set of challenges for newspapers.

Assembly Bill 1850, which was passed by the Assembly in June and is awaiting approval by the Senate, would exempt freelance journalists from AB 5 by allowing them to provide unlimited submissions to a publication. But the Legislature must also amend the bill with two other important provisions.

First, it must include language to prioritize ethnic and local news outlets for placement of state advertising and outreach advertising for public service campaigns, such as those for Zika disease awareness and smoking cessation.

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Funds for these campaigns are already allocated, and there is precedent for requiring equity efforts in state-financed projects. Most state contracts require or reward participation from veteran-, women- and minority-owned businesses.

If a share of state advertising funds were redirected to ethnic and local news outlets, the ads would influence a greater spectrum of Californians, including underserved communities of all ethnicities in the hardest-to-reach census tracts without the state having to spend one additional cent. In turn, local and ethnic papers could get some support to recover from pandemic-related advertising losses.

Second, the Legislature must amend AB 1850 to extend the exemption from AB 5 for newspaper carriers. Last year, lawmakers gave newspapers a one-year exemption, which will expire in January. Many people who work as carriers, such as retired people, students and those serving multiple businesses, prefer to work as independent contractors because they want flexible schedules that match other life demands. They do not necessarily want to be employees.

Without these changes to the law, ethnic newspapers, already financially weakened, may be forced to eliminate jobs for a predominately ethnic workforce. And digital platforms could lose much of their content if their daily newspaper collaborators scale back their newsroom staffs, including ethnic media journalists.

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The mission of ethnic news outlets is more important now than ever. By enacting legislation that helps to sustain these publications, California lawmakers will show that they value and support institutions rooted in a more inclusive America.

Arturo Carmona represents the Latino Media Collaborative and La Opinion. Sandy Close is the founder of Ethnic Media Services. Regina Wilson is executive director of California Black Media.


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