Your question alludes to a dire situation: local news is fast becoming the latest casualty of the covid-19 outbreak. As reporters scramble to cover the pandemic, ad revenue at the local level is in a freefall, down as much as 50 percent in March according to Newsonomics. Local restaurants, bars, retailers, and other businesses have halted their direct advertising campaigns, which is gutting newsroom budgets. In addition, many news outlets have dropped their paywalls so that people can access critical information about the coronavirus in their communities. All this means local news is on life support and resorting to drastic measures to cut costs. From coast to coast, large and small news organizations are laying off or furloughing journalists, cutting their pay, or reducing their editorial content. To name just a few:
- The Detroit Metro Times laid off half its employees in March and cut its pages from 75 to 33.
- The Baton Rouge Advocate is furloughing 10 percent of its workforce
- The Tampa Bay Times is only publishing its print edition on Sundays and Wednesdays
- McClatchy will furlough more than 100 employees at its newspapers like the Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star, and The Sacramento Bee
- The Chicago Tribune is cutting salaries up to 10 percent
- Gannett’s USA Today, the Arizona Republic, and the Des Moines Register are requiring all employees to take five days unpaid in the next three months
- NPR is warning of steep cost cuts at its member stations
These cutbacks come just as people depend more and more on local news outlets to provide them with the indispensable information they need to stay safe during the pandemic. These outlets offer details about testing sites, local ordinances, school or business closures—all stories not covered by the national news media. According to a Knight Foundation/Gallup poll, local news consumption has doubled since December, and 78 percent say news organizations are their primary source of information about the coronavirus.
NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss says that makes journalism an essential service that should be supported by public funding. The NewsGuild, which is the largest union of journalists in North America and represents about 20 thousand workers, is calling on federal, state, and local governments to provide emergency funding to keep local news outlets viable. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Schleuss writes:
“This is the worst possible time to eliminate or weaken crucial sources of local information given the rapid spread of the virus, the frequently changing directives from governments, and the urgent need to update information about sources of assistance. Failing to protect our local news literally puts lives at risk.”
PEN America, another group representing journalists and writers, is calling on Congress to provide at least $5 billion to local journalism just as it’s done with “other industries deemed essential to our nation’s health, prosperity, and recovery.”
The idea seems to be gaining some traction in Congress. According to Axios, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers is drafting a letter to the White House that calls on the federal government to allocate some of its $1 billion advertising budget to local media. In the Senate, nearly two dozen senators, led by Maine Sen. Angus King and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, also support federal aid for local news companies and want it included in a future stimulus relief package.
Opponents of an aid package argue that local media was already in trouble before the covid-19 outbreak and that no amount of aid will prop up a dying industry. Bloggers at RedState.com say “…the national media have so destroyed the credibility of all journalism that the stomach for a revival isn’t there.” The rise in online traffic thanks to the coronavirus seems to refute that. The Wall Street Journal reports that web traffic has doubled for some publishers and that online subscriptions to digital news sites tripled in March from a year ago.
But many industry experts say it will take extraordinary measures to offset the near-total collapse of ad revenue and fixed costs. Without some kind of collective action and funding on a local, state, and national level, it’s likely the coronavirus will only exacerbate the pre-existing crisis afflicting the local news industry. It’s also likely that many more local newspapers will close, leaving news deserts in their stead.