Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the local news industry was “a patient who already had all the underlying health conditions,” said Mi-Ai Parrish, the former publisher of the Arizona Republic.
Now, local news is a patient in critical condition. Each day brings a new round of layoffs and pay cuts for journalists, a new slowing down of a printing press, and a new silence in communities that need accurate, updated, and tailored information. This is the tragic irony of our current moment: The COVID-19 pandemic is underscoring the critical importance of local news while also decimating it.
Considering this contradiction and examining paths forward were at the heart of Future Tense’s most recent web event in our yearlong Free Speech Project series, which is examining the ways technology is influencing how we think about speech.
In communities across the U.S., local journalists have kept their communities informed throughout the pandemic about things like how many tests are available, where to go to get the resources they need, what’s happening with their schools, what shortages their hospitals face—the sort of crucial, community-level coverage that large national publications like the New York Times can’t.
Local news coverage during the pandemic hasn’t just been about tallying cases. Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, noted that outlets have also “shone a spotlight on social problems”—things like existing issues in county jails, the lack of capacity for digital learning in schools, and resource gaps at hospitals.
“We think of local journalists as first responders,” said Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, a membership organization of writers dedicated to protecting free expression. Indeed, news organizations have been widely designated as essential businesses during the pandemic.
Recognizing the importance of their work to their communities, many news organizations have taken down paywalls for their COVID-19 coverage, an honorable decision which highlights an “interesting conundrum,” said Parrish, currently the Sue Clark-Johnson Professor in Media Innovation and Leadership at Arizona State University. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Outside of emergency situations, people often argue against paywalls by claiming that journalism is so vital that it should be free—but what’s lost in that argument is that precisely because journalism is so vital, it needs the financial backing of its audience.
Unfortunately, convincing people to pay for journalism, particularly online journalism, is difficult.
“There’s still sort of a hangover from the days where everything on the internet was free and people expected it to be free,” Nossel said.
In a November report, PEN America found that over the past 15 years, newspapers have lost “over $35 billion in ad revenue and 47 percent of newsroom staff.” In many cases, the report notes, the digital shift has “collapsed” local newsrooms’ business models.
Without even taking into consideration the impact of our current pandemic, $35 billion represents a massive funding gap, one not easily bridged. Doing so requires recognition among the public that journalism is a necessary public service—and perhaps government funding.
The most recent stimulus bill, as Nossel and Viktorya Vilk recently highlighted in Future Tense, “includes almost no support” for the journalism industry. But several organizations, including PEN America, are calling for future stimulus funding to include a special focus on local news organizations.
Government funding for journalism is controversial in the U.S., with critics citing concerns over editorial independence. But there are successful models for maintaining independence despite government funding in areas such as scientific research and the arts, Nossel said.
“Perhaps this stimulus phase can kind of destigmatize the idea of expanding public funding and catalyze a robust, in-depth debate,” she said.
One thing that’s clear is that solutions are urgent. More than 2,100 newspapers have disappeared since 2004, according to University of North Carolina professor Penny Muse Abernathy. And that was before the pandemic. “Once they disappear, they do not come back,” said Nossel. “So there’s a finality at stake here.”
Ultimately, said Pope, the problem local news faces is so daunting that “there’s no rescue big enough that’s going to come from the outside.” Rescuing local news requires community buy-in and community boots on the ground.
To get their communities to rally around them, said Pope, it’s “incumbent on these news organizations to humanize themselves.”
There are lots of ways to do this. It may involve sitting with your critical readers to discuss concerns over barbecue. It may involve, as Pope once did, parking an RV on the streets of Manhattan and opening the doors to community members with concerns, comments, questions, and tips. It won’t always be easy.
But luckily, local news organizations have two big things going for them on this front. First, the majority of Americans trust local television, newspapers, and radio (more so than national news sources), and this trust increases with increased contact with local reporters.
The second, Parrish highlighted, is that among local journalists “there is still so much heart for the work,” despite constant challenges. After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, journalism schools across the country saw a surge in class sizes, and the panelists said it was reasonable to expect a similar reaction in the months following the pandemic.
Pope said his largest source of hope is local journalists’ commitment to telling stories that matter—the type of commitment that has them emailing CJR the day after they’ve been laid off with an idea for a new, important story that they’re ready to report.
This hope is especially important in the face of the industry’s uncertain future.
“It’s like everything that we’re living through right now. None of us know where the other side is,” Pope said. “ I live in New York City and every day I look for glimmers of hope in the data, and some days I see it and some days I don’t … [W]e have to get through that phase first, and then we can start looking at the battlefield and sort of say, ‘Where do we go now?’ ”