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People are flocking to local newspapers to learn about the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on their communities. But public health restrictions designed to slow the virus’ spread have these papers fighting for their lives.
Most states have implemented stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders and closed nonessential businesses to reduce COVID-19 infections and avoid overwhelming a strained health care system. Shops, service providers and restaurants don’t advertise when the doors aren’t open, and advertising is the lifeblood that sustains local news.
The virus’ economic downturn “could be an extinction-level event for newspapers,” University of North Carolina professor Penelope Abernathy told the Associated Press.
As the nation’s leading researcher on newspaper closures, Abernathy would know. She’s chronicled the demise of more than 2,100 papers in the last 15 years as advertising’s shifted from print to online. While many newspapers operate robust websites updated around the clock with local stories, digital goliaths Google and Facebook alone take in 70% of all online ad revenue.
The coronavirus crisis is accelerating papers’ pivot from print to digital as it threatens their bottom lines. Dozens have reduced publication days or suspended their print editions entirely, and the largest U.S. media companies are implementing layoffs, pay reductions, furloughs and all manner of cost-saving cutbacks.
As papers see their digital readership grow, many are adding paywalls to replace lost revenue. They’re asking online readers to join print subscribers in investing in local news coverage. The success or failure of these efforts might determine whether newspapers can keep reporters on the beat.
Help could come in the form of a federal bailout. On Wednesday, 19 senators signed a letter to Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate leaders asking that “any future coronavirus stimulus package contain funding to support local journalism and media.”
Papers have historically been reluctant to seek government support. The First Amendment guarantee of press freedom means they’re largely self-regulated — Congress and state legislatures can’t impose occupational licensing rules for journalists, nor can they prevent editorial pages from endorsing political candidates.
Strong local news reporting is firmly in the public’s interest, and if automakers, airlines and other domestic industries receive bailouts, newspapers can make a convincing case. But the money should be channeled through a private grant-maker like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to ensure lawmakers can’t reward well-connected news outlets and punish papers for critical coverage.
Trade groups including America’s Newspapers, the News Media Alliance, the National Newspaper Association and the National Association of Broadcasters are amplifying the call for emergency aid. They’re advocating for their members’ interests, but COVID-19 is an existential threat for them, too. Papers can’t pay dues to professional organizations if they can’t stay in business.
The entire newspaper ecosystem is threatened, and that could affect average Americans more than they know. State press associations lobby for strong open government legislation and help bankroll public records and open meetings lawsuits. Without collective action from the news publishing industry, chances are your state and local governments would be able to keep a lot more secrets from you.
“Even as our members see their revenue collapsing, they are devoting all they have to ensuring their neighbors, their Main Street businesses and their local first responders get timely and accurate information and support during this pandemic,” America’s Newspapers CEO Dean Ridings said.
Without your local newspaper, you’d be uninformed, underinformed or just plain misinformed. Government agencies increasingly turn to social media to share their messages with the public, but these channels are no substitute for an independent news outlet that will cut through the spin, check the facts and ask the hard questions.
Going to your school district’s website for student lunch menus is fine, but don’t expect to find stories about superintendent pay perks or school board controversies there. For watchdog reporting, you need local media.
In a 2018 study, University of Illinois and University of Notre Dame researchers found that government spending and waste increase in communities where newspapers close. An inquisitive reporter in the room tends to keep city councils on their toes.
Coronavirus won’t be a permanent plague, but if we allow it to kill off local news, American society will suffer for generations. Consider your subscription — online or in print — a vaccine against information blackouts.
Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.