The Virus vs. Journalism

The disappearance of local information

A newspaper machine is seen in New Orleans last month. Credit…Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The New York Times, by David Leonhardt, April 30, 2020 •  This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

Local journalism was in deep trouble before the coronavirus.

The internet has taken away the main source of revenue for newspapers — print advertisements — leading to a rapid shrinking of the industry. Nationwide, the number of people employed in newsrooms fell about 25 percent between 2008 and 2019, and it’s probably down more than 50 percent from its peak.

If local papers were being replaced by digital publications covering local news, this trend wouldn’t be a problem. But that’s not happening. Instead, many Americans lack basic information about their communities — like what their mayor, school board, local employers and more are doing.

The disappearance of this information has big effects. Academic research has found that voter turnout and civic engagement tend to decline when newspapers shrink or close. Fewer people run for office. Political corruption and polarization rise.

“Local newspapers are basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies,” Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, has written.

Now the virus is taking this crisis to a new level.

The rapid shrinking of the economy — at the fastest pace since the Great Depression — has led to a further decline in advertising. Some newspapers that were on the brink may not survive. And many more journalists have been laid off. As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan has noted, “it’s happening around the world,” with newspapers in Australia and Britain announcing that “they were going out of business or suspending print publication.”

What’s the solution? In the short term, Sullivan and some media observers have called for government stimulus money to be directed at local news outlets, as is happening for many other industries.

Writing in The Atlantic, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott of Report for America offer an intriguing idea:

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.

Long term, however, stimulus isn’t the answer. Local journalism needs a new business model. (National journalism, by the way, is doing OK, thanks in part to the growth of subscription-based journalism, at The New York Times and elsewhere.)

My hope is that somebody will eventually find a way to make money providing useful local information. Until then, the answer will almost certainly need to involve philanthropy, much as philanthropy has long supported public radio.

You’ve heard me say this before, and it’s never been more true: If you have a local source of news that you trust, I hope you can find a way to support it financially.

That source may still be a traditional local newspaper, which sells subscriptions. But I know many people now live in communities where companies like Alden Global Capital have taken over newspapers and are bleeding them for some final profits. (See Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo for more on this.)

In that case, see if your community now has a nonprofit start-up as well, in the mold of the Texas Tribune.

And if you have no good local options, you may even want to think about starting a movement to change that.

For more …

  • Poynter has a running list of the newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures caused by the coronavirus.

  • Matt Laslo, NBC News Think:

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. … 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.

  • Politico’s Jack Shafer argues against stimulus for newspapers:

It might make sense for the government to assist otherwise healthy companies — such as the airlines — that need a couple of months of breathing space from the viral shock to recover and are in a theoretical position to repay government loans sometime soon. But it’s quite another thing to fling a life buoy to a drowning swimmer who doesn’t have the strength to hold on. Newspapers are such a drowning industry. Readers have abandoned them in the tens of millions. Advertisers have largely abandoned them. For the most part, the virus isn’t causing them to sink. They’re already sunk.

In the triage of rescuing flailing firms, some sectors must be left dead unless we want to make permanent welfare cases out of them — and that’s a much different argument than a bailout. It would also be a grievous error to bail out papers controlled by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund — and other firms like them — that have made a practice of squeezing high profits while simultaneously cutting staff and escalating subscription prices.

David Leonhardt
David Leonhardt

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David Leonhardt, a former Washington bureau chief for The Times, was the founding editor of The Upshot and the head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt  Facebook