The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pandemic has made local news indispensable. It’s also killing it.

The 17 new journalists joining the Associated Press in a partnership with Report for America to boost the news agency's statehouse coverage. The AP hires are part of 225 journalists in the 2020 Report for America reporting corps.
The 17 new journalists joining the Associated Press in a partnership with Report for America to boost the news agency's statehouse coverage. The AP hires are part of 225 journalists in the 2020 Report for America reporting corps. (AP)
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“WE COULD see it happening, but the speed has been stunning. One day, you’re a profitable newspaper, doing better every year; the next, almost all of our ad revenue is wiped out with no clear sign of when it will return.” So wrote the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times on March 18 as he announced the layoff of nearly the entire staff of the newspaper and suspension of its print edition because of the economic havoc caused by covid-19. The St. Louis alternative weekly is far from alone as local newspapers across the country cut salaries, furlough workers and suspend — or even cease — operations.

It’s true that much of the local news industry had fallen on hard times well before covid-19. But the pandemic is inflicting new damage even as it underscores the crucial role of local newspapers. In this public health emergency, people turn to local media for answers to what The Post’s Margaret Sullivan called “life-or-death information” such as “Where to get tested?” and “Is it safe to go outside?” Local officials depend on local media to help get information out; many newspapers, recognizing their role in the community, are providing stories about covid-19 at no charge online.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Some efforts to help are underway. Google recently announced it will launch an emergency fund to help local news outlets that are struggling to maintain operations in the face of the pandemic. It didn’t provide a specific figure but said it would offer grants ranging from the “low thousands of dollars” for the smallest operations to “low tens of thousands for larger newsrooms.” Facebook last month said it would donate $100 million to support news organizations globally hurt by the pandemic. Critics of Facebook and Google are quick to note that their dominance of online advertising is one of the factors that have made life harder for local media outlets, but that’s not a reason to reject their help. Report for America, a nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms by sharing salary costs, last week announced it was responding to the crisis with the largest expansion of its program — placing 225 journalists into 162 newsrooms — since its launch in 2017.

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Good, too, that others — in academia, from nonprofits and in Congress — are looking at ways to shore up local news during this unprecedented public health crisis. The Cares Act passed by Congress provides benefits to U.S. companies, but only a few news outlets were able to qualify for benefits under the Payroll Protection Plan. That has added to the push by some for targeted assistance to local news outlets. Some interesting ideas have been proposed — like a tax credit for publishers that hire local news reporters — but there must be careful discussion — even wariness — about government relief. The independence that has made the American press so valuable should not be compromised for the sake of a government handout.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Trump orders end to New York Times, Washington Post subscriptions

David Von Drehle: What happens when a local newspaper dies

Letters to the Editor: Are there legal means for protecting local media from dying out?

Erik Wemple: Louisiana paper juggles the coronavirus, furloughs

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