The COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously proved the life-and-death importance of local journalism in our democracy and accelerated the destruction of the free press at a scale that only Congress can reverse.
During the novel coronavirus outbreak, readership of The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide is at an all-time high, but with plummeting advertising revenue. So many papers have laid off staff that journalism enterprises are in danger of not being able to provide the necessary local coverage vital to community connection just when it is most needed: in the midst of a national health and economic crisis.
While the newspaper industry has been struggling with a changing business model precipitated by digital news and advertising platforms, it still has a crucial role to play. When stay-home orders hit, advertisers closed their shops and canceled advertising that supported local newsroom jobs.
Leadership at The Seattle Times, one of the nation’s oldest private newspaper stewardships, has been working on a national plan to save newsroom employment and maximize local community coverage during this crisis. To be sure, there are multiple organizations working on this and there are many ideas to vet.
The Seattle Times Company is just one voice, but a unique one. It has operated a newspaper continuously for 124 years. Policymakers need to choose the best path to help save the current level of local newsroom employment and then shore up the otherwise imperiled local system.
Delay is no longer an option. Bold and fast action is required.
Times executives have been advising members of Congress on ways to keep the free press system viable through year-end and to stand up, for the long term, a trust or “superfund” with the financial means to rejuvenate the U.S. Founding Fathers’ vision of a vibrant local press.
Without the public service subsidy there is little doubt communities across the land will quickly lose the benefits of the free press system as soon as temporary support expires.
The New York Times has calculated an astonishing 33,000 news-industry jobs have been lost since the pandemic invaded the U.S. That is a number that is dangerously increasing, literally by the day, and the result is some communities are not served by a robust local operation, instead being served warmed-over wire stories created somewhere else.
Some states, including Washington, now have more news deserts and ghost newspapers than viable dailies, if you look at research conducted at the University of North Carolina.
The Times’ Save the Free Press Initiative is promoting three objectives:
— Stop the newsroom layoff carnage as soon as possible: For six months, Congress should provide significant stimulus funds based on newsroom head count to all daily newspapers regardless of their ownership or affiliation. To participate, papers must commit to maintain their newsroom head count for six months. Those that do would receive a second round of six-month stimulus funds.
This will stabilize newsrooms across the country as journalists fulfill their duty to cover the health and economic crises and the fall elections. About $50,000 per news employee (each six months) would be the necessary level to ensure both critical short-term coverage and enough employment and infrastructure to see the industry through necessary longer-term reforms I outline below. Other good approaches will probably surface. The Times will fully support any proposal that accomplishes the objective.
— Create a Free Press trust or superfund by year-end: Funded by a fee on the ad revenue of major internet platforms, such as Facebook and Google, this subsidy would replace the lost postal subsidy the Founding Fathers created to ensure every citizen had access to trusted information necessary to sustain local civic engagement. Our founders recognized that producing localized content and providing universal access would require a subsidy and set a low U.S. Postal Service delivery rate accordingly. Times have changed, the original subsidy is gone, and it must be replaced.
Without a replacement subsidy, there’s no question the U.S. will quickly see a vacuum of citizen knowledge about their government at all levels. Then circumstances will emulate the worldwide rise of nondemocratic governments with onerous control of information.
— Reform federal law to prioritize local ownership: Short-term rescue will accomplish little if we don’t also reform federal law to protect local journalism as a civic utility.
Local journalism is intended to be a trusted public service with deep community connections. Besides newspapers, there are many parts to our news and information ecosystem, including broadcast stations, local blogs and public media. All are important, but the foundation is the local newspaper, print and digital.
Strengthen the local newspaper system, and the whole ecosystem is made stronger. Duke University researchers found that even though newspaper companies were just one quarter of all the news outlets in operation, they produced almost two-thirds of the original local content that fulfills civic information needs in those communities.
Rebuilding and rejuvenating local newspapers and community news is our path to reestablishing civic engagement and civil discourse in communities across the country. Strengthening the local system, everywhere, creates a rising tide for the whole journalism ecosystem. It is essential if we are to stop the erosion of American democracy.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frank Blethen is publisher of The Seattle Times and the great-grandson of the 124-year-old company’s founder.
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