Amid ongoing upheaval in the media business, a group of local and regional news organizations including the Star Tribune is seeking pension fund relief from Congress.
A bill known as the Save Community Newspaper Act of 2018 was introduced last month by U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., who said it would help independent newspapers "find their financial footing." The proposal comes as newspaper companies contend with shrinking print advertising revenue and intense online competition, as well as newsprint tariffs that have increased costs.
Frank Blethen, publisher of the Seattle Times, said the Girl Scouts of the USA and other nonprofit groups received similar relief in 2014. He said the new legislation would allow newspapers to postpone millions of dollars in pension contributions over the next few years.
"I think this will literally save dozens of family-owned newspapers around the country," said Blethen, who is leading the effort. "It is very serious for us. With this pension relief, we would have a pretty clear runway to long-term survival."
Newspaper companies face a challenge in generating enough money from current operations to keep up with pension obligations that accumulated when the industry employed more people. Total employment in the industry dropped from about 400,000 in 2008 to just under 175,000 in 2018, according to the News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 U.S. news organizations.
The Star Tribune, which employs about 900 people, provides pension benefits to 3,253 current and former employees and has never failed to meet its pension obligations. The company's pension plan was frozen in 2009.
Paul Boyle, senior vice president of public policy at the Alliance, said the pension proposal would save jobs by freeing publishers from rules that "hinder their ability to transition for the future." The bill has bipartisan support from six cosponsors from Washington, New Mexico and California.
The proposed legislation would reduce the amount of money a company would have to come up with if a pension plan fell short of various funding targets. It would extend the period for covering any funding shortfalls to 30 years, rather than the current limit of seven years.
"This bill is aimed at helping community newspapers around the country — including many small, family-owned newspapers — live up to their obligations to retirees," said Steve Yaeger, chief marketing officer of Star Tribune Media Co.
"Star Tribune business executives have been in touch with most members of Minnesota's congressional delegation to express support for the bill," Yaeger said. "Neither the Star Tribune newsroom nor the editorial board have any part in that, and will continue to independently report and comment on the legislation as they see fit."
Star Tribune owner Glen Taylor contributed $2,000 to Paulsen's re-election campaign in 2017, according to campaign finance records. Paulsen represents a district in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities.
Blethen said the pension bill would likely provide relief to about 30 newspaper companies. The bill would change the funding requirements for private pension plans operated by independent daily newspapers that serve communities with populations in excess of 100,000, according to a House report on the bill.
The legislation does not provide help for large media companies that operate newspapers in multiple states or newspaper companies whose stock trades publicly.
"By changing the pension funding mechanism, these newspapers will have the certainty they need to make payments to fund their plan," Paulsen said. "The bill does not authorize any public funds to subsidize these pensions. These pension plans are frozen, meaning there are no new entrants into the old defined benefit plans, so that the hole will not be dug deeper."