“Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. And buy a subscription to your local newspaper.”
That’s some coronavirus coping advice from Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, leaders of the journalism nonprofit Report for America.
It’s a good suggestion — not just for individuals, but for Congress.
News outlets large and small are reporting huge spikes in traffic as readers seek out what the pandemic means for their communities. Is testing available? What local nonprofits need donations? If schools are closed, can kids still get free meals?
As a public service, many outlets have even pulled down their paywalls to keep their communities informed. It’s a noble gesture. But the truth is, they can barely afford it.
As businesses shutter and festivals fold under quarantine, the advertising dollars that sustained local journalism’s shoestring margins are rapidly drying up. Already strained papers are facing new pressure to lay off reporters, pull back their print editions or even shutter altogether.
All this accelerates a crisis that’s been haunting local journalism for years.
I edit OtherWords.org, a nonprofit opinion syndicate published by the Institute for Policy Studies. We provide free opinion pieces for small- and medium-size papers, broadening their coverage of national perspectives while freeing up resources for local coverage. Each year, we learn about more painful closures and cutbacks from our subscribers.
What’s happening? A lot of things.
Hedge fund-backed ownership chains have drastically slashed newsrooms, while Google and Facebook have siphoned off the local ad revenue they need to survive. And, of course, some papers simply failed to deliver a product that could compete.
Whatever the cause, 2,000 local communities have lost their local newspapers over the last decade and a half, while many more are served only by “ghost papers” with bare bones staff.
This is harrowing news for democracy.
“Local newspapers are basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies,” explains Joshua Benton for Nieman Lab. They “make citizens more knowledgeable about politics and more likely to engage with local government,” increasing voter turnout while reducing corruption and partisanship.
If politics feels uniformly toxic these days, the decline of these institutions is no small part of the reason. If the pandemic finishes them off, expect that to worsen dramatically — along with local public health.
Right now, corporations from airlines to the Trump Organization are begging for federal bailout funds. A much better investment would be a stimulus package for local newspapers, whose newsrooms had lost half their employees in the decade before the pandemic.
Waldman and Sennott point out the government currently spends $1 billion on ads for the census and military recruitment. They suggest spending an extra $500 million on public health ads to support local media.
Craig Aaron of the media democracy group Free Press calls for an even bigger $5 billion stimulus for public media and local daily and weekly newsrooms, while helping some transition into nonprofit or cooperatively owned models.
Neither sum is even a rounding error in the $2 trillion package Congress just passed, but either would make an enormous difference for cash-strapped newsrooms. As with the airline bailout, these funds should be contingent on papers retaining employees, not simply using the money to pay off shareholders.
Others are taking aim at corporate structures they say bleed local journalism dry.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, rolled out a plan last year to block media mergers, redirect ad revenue from Facebook and Google to local journalism and support unionization, cooperative ownership and other strategies by reporters to protect their jobs.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed cracking down on the private equity firms that buy up local papers and cut staff. Regulators need to “rein in private equity vultures and force them to make investments that help companies and protect workers rather than stripping them down for parts,” she said.
In the long run, it’s worth asking whether such a critical public resource — for our democracy and our health — should live and die by the dictates of the market. Clearly, we need robust public and nonprofit media that can operate on the scale of the major dailies of old.
But in the short term, amid cascading crises of democracy and public health, we need these papers today more than ever. So wash your hands, don’t touch your face, subscribe to your local daily — and tell your congressperson you want a big stimulus for local journalism.