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Legislative inaction could be disastrous for news industry and its carriers
freedom of speech

This could be one of the last newspapers you get delivered to your home.

That may sound incredible, but a bill working its way through the Legislature could, if passed, end the home delivery of some newspapers in California.

Assembly Bill 5, which has been characterized primarily as a fight over whether Lyft and Uber drivers should be company employees, would have much broader impacts on the California economy. Simply put: AB 5 will likely cause the death knell for some printed version of California newspapers. It’s not the only challenge to professional journalism in 2019, but it is by far the most serious.

AB 5 would force all businesses to hire independent contractors as employees – unless the business has been given a special exemption by the Legislature. So far, the Legislature has refused to grant one to the newspaper industry. That’s critical because although many newspapers are union-represented shops, they rely on independent contractors in the form of newspaper delivery carriers and freelance journalists.

Some well-funded industries have been granted exemptions, such as doctors and real estate agents. Newspapers need one as well if we are to keep them in California.

Organized labor organizations are divided over this issue. While some are eager to try to organize workforces like Uber drivers, others know it will mean a loss of union jobs – including those in our newsrooms.

Thousands of newspaper carriers, most of whom deliver several different newspapers, would lose their jobs if AB 5 passes.

In densely populated areas, some newspapers may still circulate, although the costs of a subscription will increase substantially. Those in more rural or sparsely populated areas simply won’t have the option to get a newspaper delivered to their home at any price. Digital connectivity can be spotty in rural areas, where engaged citizens who receive printed news deeply value their daily delivery.

In recent days it appears there is some interest in the Legislature in delaying AB 5 and taking it up in 2020 when California and the rest of the nation will be distracted by the presidential election. We implore the governor and Legislature not to postpone acting on the bill, which could be just as disastrous for newspapers.

AB 5 was prompted by a California Supreme Court decision that overruled a 30-year precedent by declaring that workers can only maintain independent contractor status if a business and contractor can pass a three-part test known as the ABC test. While there’s merit to the court’s decree that a simpler test was needed, it’s also true that the one-size-fits-all test doesn’t work for everyone in California’s dynamic economy.

AB 5 was supposed to strike a balance by both codifying the ABC test and providing exemptions to protect independent status for certain time-tested independent work relationships.

Without legislative relief, millions of independent workers in California, including independent newspaper carriers, may not pass the new test. The reason most independent workers won’t pass the test is not because of anything to do with their working conditions; it’s because the “B” prong of the ABC test only allows independent contractor relationships where the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business.

And unless the governor and Legislature act this month to resolve the conflict, newspapers will have to follow the court’s direction. That’s why pushing off a decision on AB 5 is also untenable for the future of news in California.

As newspaper circulation is reduced, advertising revenue is reduced. Reduction of both circulation and ad revenue will force newspapers to employ fewer journalists. This will result in fewer stories being told, less investigation of corruption, and ultimately, an inability for citizens to gain the information necessary for self-governance. All of this at a time when access to authoritative, reliable information is more important than ever.

Newspapers aren’t Uber or Lyft. It also isn’t an unfathomably complicated task to provide relief for newspapers, the largest of which have union-represented employees, without opening the door to those who seek to exploit workers. For the past 40 years newspapers and carriers have complied with a stringent regulation that governs when a newspaper carrier can be considered an independent contractor. This test is tough but fair, and solely applies to newspaper delivery, yet it won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on unless AB 5 is amended to recognize it.

Thomas W. Newton is the executive director of the California News Publishers Association. James W. Ewert is its general counsel and advocate.