The last three years at the state legislature have been fraught with peril for community papers as lawmakers and certain media outlets have played petty gotcha games.
We’re not talking the normal back and forth that’s always taking place between journalists and public servants. It’s been more like a gaggle of unruly elementary school children taunting each other with a sort of brinkmanship.
What’s not funny is when lawmakers decide to stick it to all members of the press by way of getting some payback for ill-timed photos or unflattering articles — it always ends up hurting innocent parties.
The latest ax with which the legislature has taken aim at newspapers is House Bill 482, called Employee Misclassification Reform.
The bill was drawn up in response to a timely expose of the construction industry written by Raleigh News and Observer staff along with the Charlotte Observer.
When the Senate got hold of the bill, they added provisions to it to cover not just the construction industry, they upended more than a decade of understanding about newspaper carriers to require that N.C.-based publications cover carriers with workers compensation insurance and unemployment tax.
This requirement would be cost-prohibitive on its face and likely lead to further costly regulations.
Below is an excerpt of a letter we mailed to our representatives as well as the authors of HB 482.
We are writing to urge you to please vote for no concurrence on HB 482 “Employee Misclassification Reform.”
The devastating effect this will have on community newspapers (CNs) will be irreversible. CNs simply do not have the operating heft that major metros have.
Community newspapers are run because of love of community. Community newspapers take back-breaking effort from owners/publishers/editors/writers, most of whom work for much less than teachers make. Sometimes less than teacher assistants make.
But rather than tell you about community newspapers in general, we’d like to plead our case with our particular newspaper, The Wake Forest Weekly (aka The Rolesville Weekly and The Franklin Weekly).
The Wake Weekly has been in the Allen Family of Wake Forest since 1952, when it was purchased by the current publisher’s WWII veteran uncle. He then sold it that same year to Robert W. “Bob” Allen, Sr., who later married Margaret “Peggy” Garren and together they built up and ran the paper until ownership transferred between family.
Well-known within the field of journalism, Peggy was awarded the National Newspaper Association’s Emma C. McKinney for work in community journalism.
Bob and Peggy were also named to the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame in 2006 (Peggy posthumously as she died Nov.1, 2005), the first couple to be jointly named.
Community is what matters
Today, we cover four municipalities and two county governments. We have 13 local employees who live right in Wake Forest, or nearby. We also have five local carriers who deliver papers to newsstands, stores and most importantly more than two dozen area schools as we participate in Community Newspapers in Education.
We absorb all the cost for the CNIE, by the way.
We’re very proud of launching the first Health Expo held in Wake Forest a few years ago and continue to organize that every year.
Two years ago we successfully secured a partnership with Rex Healthcare Foundation to bring Mobile Mammograms up into northern Wake and southern Franklin County. This October will be the third year we’ve organized this effort. And we know (because of the data from previous years), these efforts have quite possibly saved several women’s lives as the tests uncovered early breast cancer.
We do this because we are a community newspaper and we care.
We are also extremely proud of our annual Best of the Best voter’s choice contest we facilitate. We started the program in 2010 to help turn the local consumer’s focus onto local business, rather than driving into Raleigh.
We just had our fifth annual awards gala with right under 500 local business and community leaders in attendance. We are limited only by the available meeting space here in Wake Forest as this is a relentlessly local event.
In addition to these things, our writers cover mom and pop business openings, local high school athletics, town board meetings, trail dedications, musical events, local plays, elementary school art exhibits, funerals, farmers markets, little league games, bike rodeos, backpack giveaways and so much more.
We have allowed high school students to intern here and given community writers a chance to try their hand at this craft.
It may sound silly, but the crazy hours we work are worth it when a young entrepreneur makes our front page and then tweets a photo of the story out to all her followers.
Or a dad comes in and buys 20 copies of the paper because his son’s baseball team is featured in the sports section.
Community is what we do and because of it, our neighborhoods are stronger, our schools are more connected and more people actually take part in being active in government and society.
While we mail our subscriptions via the U.S. Postal Service, we still circulate a tremendous amount of newspapers via carriers.
We aren’t even a part-time endeavor for them, however. We are just a side job, a way for them to make a little bit extra each month.
Our carriers are completely independent of us, much like the neighborhood kid who might cut your grass is not your employee.
To have to add our carriers to our company’s workers comp insurance, and also pay unemployment tax, is cost prohibitive and simply bad business.
By requiring this, those same independent contractors would then have to be counted in our health insurance audits and also be added to our company liability insurance, driving those costs substantially.
This move could literally be the slow death knell of privately held community newspapers in the state.
In your rush to strike out at certain media, you are catching the rest of us in the middle. To potentially weaken the press’ ability to be the fourth estate might sound appealing now, but you must be aware of the chilling effect such a move will have on us as a community, a state, a nation.
A vote against concurrence would not diminsh the well-conceived center of HB482. But a vote in favor could destroy the last voice of reason in our state’s communities.