The Coronavirus Is Killing Local News

Keeping these news sources afloat needs to be part of the governmental and philanthropic response to the pandemic.

Reprinted from The Atlantic

By Steven Waldman. and Charles Sennott

Among the important steps you should take during this crisis: Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. And buy a subscription to your local newspaper.

The coronavirus pandemic may be global, but the crisis has kept many people glued to local news. Trustworthy, accurate, and local information is now a matter of life and death. Keeping these news sources afloat needs to be part of the governmental and philanthropic response to the pandemic. The federal government should not “bail out” newsrooms, but future stimulus plans should include steps that can help save local news organizations.

In this moment, the bottom is falling out economically for local news organizations. Those small businesses in your town that are closing left and right? They are also advertisers for your area paper. And the stock-market collapse that has halved your 401(k)? It’s also devastating the local foundation that funds nonprofit news organizations. Many news outlets are taking down their paywalls to make information on the coronavirus more accessible. That decision—although the right one—means lost revenue too.

At Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms and helps pay up to half their salaries, we have been receiving some urgent warnings from our partner newsrooms: Their finances are cratering, to the point that they’re not sure they can afford even their half of a reporter’s salary.

A rural public-radio station wrote to us, “We anticipate a sharp drop in station sponsorship revenue over the next several months and that will affect our budget through the summer. A hefty share of our sponsorship money comes from local arts organizations promoting local events. Those events are being cancelled in large numbers and we are losing the associated sponsorship revenue.”

A weekly that serves a large African American community is losing ad revenue due to its inability to print for a few weeks. At the current pace, the journalists there estimate that they can hold on for only a few more months. A nonprofit that applied to Report for America in hopes of expanding its coverage of a statehouse just told us that it was pulling out of our program because its small endowment was shrinking, and it might not be able to retain all of its current staff, let alone bring on new reporters. Another public-radio station has canceled its planned pledge drive because “it just doesn’t feel right right now.” Nieman Lab reported that the economic repercussions of the virus may cause many alternative weeklies to close.

These examples are from the fortunate communities that still have news organizations.  Hundreds of counties have already lost their local news source amid years of declining revenue. A news desert combined with a pandemic is another public-health disaster waiting to happen. Such communities will either have no local information or rely entirely on gossip and social media.

Local news outlets are shrinking or closing when the public needs them the most. Some of the most important guidance right now is highly localized: Where can I go to get tested? Can my kids still get free or reduced-price meals while schools are closed? Which grocery stores deliver? Which public institutions are closed? Which local organizations need donations, and how do I donate? Which advice on the local Facebook group is accurate and which isn’t? Local journalism is also an important way for public-health officials to spot trends and potential solutions.

So what can be done to help keep journalism in your community alive?

The federal government can do something quite concrete right now: As part of its stimulus plans, it should funnel $500 million in spending for public-health ads through local media.

The government already spends about $1 billion on public-service ads that promote initiatives such as military recruitment and census participation. The stimulus should add another $1 billion to support the communication of accurate health-related information. Some of those ads should go to social-media platforms and national news networks, but half should go to local news organizations.

This is not a bailout; the government will be buying an effective way of getting health messages to the public, and could even customize the notices to specific audiences. Distributing the ads can be done in an entirely nonideological, nonpartisan way (so the Trump administration doesn’t play favorites among the media). A 2011 report by the Federal Communications Commission, of which one of us, Steve Waldman, was the lead author, recommended the use of federal ad dollars to help local news, concluding that ad-technology platforms have made it easier to distribute funds fairly. The government should also funnel census-related ads through local media.

The responsibility to help local news groups doesn’t fall solely on the government. National and community foundations, as well as private philanthropists, are already creating special funds to address the coronavirus crisis. They should consider supporting a health reporter or two. Many place-based foundations already support local journalism, sometimes directly by helping fund nonprofit news websites or public radio, and sometimes through programs like Report for America. In the current crisis, philanthropic groups must recognize that accurate local information is a key part of battling the pandemic.

These foundations are required by law to spend 5 percent of their endowments on grant-making each year. Distributing the minimum percentage is prudent in normal times. But these aren’t normal times. Foundations need to take bold action; going above that 5 percent target would unleash millions of dollars.

Individuals have a role to play too. Each of you should not only subscribe to your local organization but, if possible, donate too. Nonprofit news organizations (whether public-radio stations or web-based watchdog groups) rely on donations.

Reporters are continuing to go to work, often putting themselves at risk, to provide a public service that is profoundly important right now. In many states, news providers have been classified as “essential” organizations precisely because public health officials understand the importance of accurate information in fighting a pandemic. Help local reporters help their communities—and yours.

STEVEN WALDMAN is the president and a co-founder of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.

CHARLES SENNOTT is the CEO of the GroundTruth Project, which launched Report for America in 2017.