Coronavirus is revealing why local news is so important. It's also killing it.

People need timely, unbiased information on local conditions in their communities more than ever. Cutbacks in local news make that increasingly difficult.
Image: Bobbie Padgitt
Bobbie Padgitt delivers The Vindicator newspapers to local merchants in Niles, Ohio on Aug. 6, 2019.Tony Dejak / AP file
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By Matt Laslo

It’s an incomprehensible — even insane — time for all. People are being cordoned off from their friends and family members, including the elderly matriarchs and patriarchs who are the backbones of many families. Thousands have already lost loved ones while hundreds of thousands of people have fallen ill. Millions more are confined to working from home (if they’re able to work at all) and everyone is frantically trying to find critical supplies, determine whether it's safe to leave the house and figure out when their local businesses might reopen.

That is why the ability for people to get timely, unbiased information on local conditions in their communities is more important than ever. Doing so, however, is increasingly more difficult than ever before — and could get even worse.

Many newsrooms were already facing hard times before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered much of America’s economy. Now, with revenue plummeting as advertisers react to extended stay-at-home orders, 22 million unemployed Americans and predictions of a looming, painful global recession, the nation’s local media outlets are facing their potential ends.

And in the absence of local news organizations, we could all face an unprecedented attack from a second invisible enemy: Fake news parading as fact, with nothing and nobody to counter its spread.

Don't believe me? Just look at how pervasive coronavirus myths already are amongst your friends, neighbors and social media acquaintances. Early in this new quarantine-era, rumors abounded that you could just drink water to "wash the virus down your throat" — even though that doesn't even work on the common cold virus. Even now, you've assuredly seen acquaintances spreading the idea that, even as infection numbers and the death toll rise, this is all just hype.

And now imagine what would happen if your local newspaper or locally owned, locally-staffed television or NPR station weren't there daily, providing you and yours with the real story. That's a situation that might not be too far off for many communities.

Local publications, by and large, have maintained the trust of their communities, after cultivating relationships with readers through decades of reporting. But that local media landscape from Alaska to Florida — has been upended by the coronavirus.

Out West, the "corona-cession" ripped San Diego Magazine, which was launched in the 1940s, out of the hands of loyal readers after 37 people — the entire staff — were displaced. Connecticut’s Newtown Bee — which gave us iconic images of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre paused its weekly print edition. In Texas, the formerly alt-weekly Austin Chronicle is now an alt-biweekly. The Forum, in Fargo, North Dakota, has now suspended daily print editions on Mondays and Fridays.

“We have lost advertisers who have been forced to pull their placements as their own businesses shut their doors — either temporarily or permanently,” Forum publisher Bill Marcil Jr. wrote to readers. “We have lost subscribers — some who are concerned about how they can afford their subscription at a time when they may no longer be getting a paycheck.”

Even America’s most far reaching newspaper chain, Gannett — which owns everything from USA Today to the Arizona Republic, and hundreds of other publications in between — has been punched in the gut by this pandemic … or, at least, hundreds of its journalists have. Anyone there making more than $38,000 is facing a mandatory 15-day furlough in the next few months. (And, if the pain of those coming furloughs wasn’t enough, Gannett employees also had to endure watching the company’s stock value increase after the news went public.)

So far, roughly 28,000 reporters, editors, photographers and even interns have personally felt the disorienting pain of this economic clampdown since the coronavirus, according to The New York Times. Some workers' salaries have been slashed by 10 to 20 percent — according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for journalists is $43,490 annually, counter to perceptions that this is an inherently elite profession — even as thousands of freelancers (me included) have faced complete work losses from a growing number of organizations who used to rely on our work.

Newsrooms had already been tested in extraordinary ways since President Donald Trump entered the White House. But wrestling with how to cover a reality TV entertainer who peddles conspiracy theories is one thing; doing so in the midst of a global pandemic, the fear of which is driving ever-more conspiracy theories, with far fewer journalists than ever all but guarantees that readers will be subject to an onslaught of mis- and disinformation.

Accurate journalism isn’t just now more important now than ever; independent, close-to-home reporting has always — and will always — be a life-giving resource to communities, because information is foundational to modern life.

That’s why the founders enshrined a free press in the first constitutional amendment they penned. Yes, free speech is a right; but free speech alone doesn't do much on its own. Accurate data and free speech together are empowering, and actionable. Propaganda, however, is disempowering, because it is often crafted to uphold the designer's preferred outcome, rather than be good for the person who hears it.

Most people, however, don’t have time to research everything they hear or want to know on their own, which is why reporters work overtime regularly. Our job is — or should be — to find out what the average person can't or doesn't have time to discover, and give them that information.

News is also a business. But the business model itself was critically wounded by the internet and then social media even before news outlets were affected by the coronavirus. The truth is that now, journalism is beyond saving by capitalism alone.

Sure, there have been sparks of innovation, evidenced by web-only sites like Buzzfeed (which cut staff salaries for April and May) or even the new pay-to- view models deployed by the Times or the Wall Street Journal. But for local, legacy publications, it’s not that simple.

In recent years, many local news outlets were bought by impersonal hedge funds — a move that amounted to the monetization of information. That has stifled Americans' access to local news, as those groups have stripped local news assets for profit and abandoned them. From the New York Daily News to the Chicago Sun Times, from the New Orleans Times-Picayune to the Los Angeles Times, hundreds of newspapers, both large and small, have been gobbled up by seemingly heartless companies that cared more about bonuses for executive than displaced reporters. They then either consolidated them, sold them off, shuttered them or folded them into a larger "news network" that pretends to be local, even if stories are shipped in by staff far away from the hearts of our communities.

But no one should sell a local paper for profit — not when those local publications are as essential as highways and sewer systems to the people who live there.

This democracy needs solid local reporting to survive — and in the midst of this global pandemic, it’s time for our billionaire class to step up and sacrifice a smidgeon of the vast wealth they’ve accumulated (often on the backs of the local communities) to support the real information infrastructure we will need to move forward.

Yes, we can read and support our local publications, but everyone is cash strapped these days. It’s time for some of the nation’s wealthiest to quietly — with literally no fanfare and not even the glint of a dollar sign in their eyes — prop up the news outlets that provide the mental nourishment this nation so desperately needs.

If they don’t, we have all now truly seen what will happen. People will seek out information, and others will be happy to provide something that looks like information — but it won't be accurate, it won't be actionable and it might well be dangerous.