Business of News

Will Congress intervene in the local news crisis?

September 30, 2020

Last week, three US senators introduced a bill called the Future of Local News Commission Act. Brian Schatz (a Democrat from Hawai’i), Michael Bennet (a Democrat from Colorado), and Amy Klobuchar (a Democrat from Minnesota) proposed the establishment of a formal commission to examine the accelerating decline of local journalism. In response, news advocacy groups have buzzed with praise and support. 

The world of local journalism, after all, is looking grim. Making their case, the bill’s authors cite a slew of troubling statistics, many of which I’ve already reported here: findings from the Pew Center that US newspaper staffs have declined by half since 2008; reports that FOIA requests dropped 50 percent between 2005 and 2010; findings from American Indian Media Today reporting the loss of five hundred indigenous American media sources over the course of twenty years; findings from Penny Abernathy and her team that the US lost more than 2,100 local print outlets between 2004 and 2019—leaving a thousand more almost unrecognizably gutted; reports that, in 2018, twenty-five companies owned two-thirds of all local newspapers in the country. It’s an alarming picture.

Though the bill does ring the alarm, it neglects to note that all of these reports pre-date the pandemic, which has led to more closures, more gutted newsroom budgets, more layoffs, more ownership consolidations—fewer officials being held accountable and fewer communities being represented. Since the release of the bleak figures cited in this piece of legislation, the crisis has gotten much worse

Still, it’s the third bill this year alluding to the crisis in local news—an encouraging trend in a troubling time. This most recent bill proposes the establishment of a thirteen-person commission, which would examine the current crisis and make recommendations for federal government intervention. It also offers a few possible suggestions of its own. The commission might recommend creating a national endowment for local news or reforming and expanding the purview of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the bill’s authors suggest. 

Assess the problem; propose solutions; report back—that’s the vision. The commission would submit a report with their findings, which would be made publicly available and presented to Congress. The bill offers its recommended task force a collection of worthwhile mandates: take stock of the current obstacles facing local newsrooms—including the impact of the pandemic—interrogate the effectiveness of antitrust laws, consider models for public funding and how they might be safeguarded to protect editorial independence. Though it implies the possibility of future action, it doesn’t require it, and that’s the next indispensable step toward providing communities with the information they need. 

There’s a steep road ahead for measures such as this, and though there are signals of short-term bipartisan support, success (or failure) could be dependent upon which party has control of Congress after November’s election. In April, nearly three-quarters of US Senators signed a public letter urging the Trump administration to offer financial support for local newsrooms in the wake of the pandemic: the list of names included forty Democrats and thirty-four Republicans. A similar letter from the House of Representatives was signed by 240 lawmakers, including members of both parties. “Concern about their local papers has galvanized many Republicans to support immediate COVID-19 assistance for local outlets, but they may be less willing to support many broader longer-term measures because of opposition from their base,” Dana Miller Ervin wrote in a summer report on the state of local news. When the CARES Act included support for public broadcasting, for example, Republican Representative Jim Jordan called the measure “a liberal pet project,” and Miller notes that many conservatives joined in the criticism on social media.

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This bill is asking the federal government to acknowledge and consider the crisis. If a post-election Congress agrees—which, November pending, could be a long shot—that’s a vital first step, but it would only be the first of many urgent strides to come. 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past six months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)

Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • DEFINING A ‘NEWS DESERT’: For CJR, the Tow Center’s Sara Rafsky asks how to measure and define the term “news desert.” Panelists at a recent webinar—which Rafsky moderated—discussed how the term can encompass both the absence of a newspaper and barriers to its access. Panelists also noted that research is time-intensive, and though algorithms can help the work along, they’re not necessarily able to gauge the quality of coverage. And Aaron Foley, director of the Black Media Initiative at CUNY’s Center for Community Media, added that “we need to be cautious about how we define quality”—thoughtless definitions can lean too much into traditional assumptions about journalism, ignoring information that serves long-marginalized communities.

  • LOCAL NEWS CAN BE GOOD FOR BUSINESS: Vox Media partnered with Nielsen to explore the value of local news in driving better business outcomes for advertisers. The research found that local news outlets serve a unique audience unreached by national publications, that local news coverage drives local participation, and that specific localized ads performed better than their generic counterparts in national media publications. “These findings suggest including Local News sites in an ad campaign not only helps to support vital journalism, but could significantly improve the performance of the campaign,” the report concluded.

  • NEW FILM EXPLORES THE LOSS OF A LOCAL PAPER: Northwestern professor Craig Duff has produced a documentary about the fight to save the Youngstown Vindicator. “The film is a story about the news business, but it’s also a people story, a look at hard-working journalists and the public they serve,” Mark Jacob writes for Medill’s Local News Initiative blog. Northwestern will stream a thirty-minute excerpt from the film tonight at 6 PM EST (5 PM CST), with a panel discussion to follow. (Click here for the Zoom link).

  • LOCAL NEWSPAPERS FAIL TO REFLECT THEIR COMMUNITIES: For CJR, Marion Renault wrote about the prevailing whiteness of the Columbus Dispatch staff—for 150 years, the local paper has served a community that is far more diverse than its newsroom. 44 percent of Columbus residents are nonwhite, while 95 percent of the Dispatch staff are white. Renault cautions that if newspapers like the Dispatch are unable to rise to the challenge of representing the communities they cover, “their future becomes harder to imagine.” “Their currency is trust,” Renault writes. “How can they survive without it?”

  • EMPLOYEES MAKE DEMANDS FOR EQUITY: At NiemanLab, The Objective newsletter wrote about the fight for equity in public radio. At St. Louis Public Radio, general manager Tim Eby was removed after employees raised complaints about structural racism at the station, the newsletter reports, noting that staffers at NPR Illinois, WAMU, and Minnesota Public Radio have also raised concerns about leadership failures. In print and digital media, the HuffPost union released a series of demands for newsroom equity and the Wired union held another work stoppage to demand recognition from parent company Conde Nast.

  • WRITERS PIVOT TO NEWSLETTERS: For The New York Times, Marc Tracey wrote about the continuing trend of journalists leaving traditional media to publish their own newsletters on platforms like Substack. Casey Newton, who recently announced he is leaving The Verge to write a newsletter about the tech industry, told the Times, “You might follow a publication, but it’s more likely you care about an individual reporter or writer or YouTuber or podcaster. People are increasingly willing to pay to support those people.” Elsewhere, Delia Cai, author of the Deez Links newsletter, tweeted that “the journalists who stand to benefit most immediately from the buzzy newsletter/substack model are those with established fan-bases, platforms, big bylines, etc.”

  • POYNTER LAUNCHES NEW PARENTAL LEAVE POLICY: The Poynter Institute now offers six months of parental leave, Nieman Lab reported—twelve paid weeks, followed by PTO, with an additional eight weeks available at fifty percent earnings. This plan offers more parental leave than comparable policies at companies like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Mel Grau wrote about Poynter’s process in developing the new plan. “Our old plan didn’t apply to partners or adoptive parents,” she wrote. “It relied too heavily on manager discretion. And the six to eight weeks of short-term disability simply wasn’t long enough, according to findings from multiple U.S. and international studies.”

  • IN AUSTRALIA, PLATFORMS PUSH BACK: As Australia’s new law requiring social media platforms pay for the news they publish moves forward amid pushback from Google and Facebook, digital-only outlets are getting caught in the crossfire, NiemanLab reported. Facebook has indicated that it will cease publishing news on Australian news feeds if the legislation goes into effect as written. At present, Facebook drives much of the traffic to digital-only sites. Law experts caution that the only way to avoid the impending fallout would be to legally require Facebook and Google to publish news as a “service.” Others suggest that a tax on the platforms would be more effective than Australia’s proposed code.

  • REUTERS INSTITUTE REPORT: Last week, the Reuters Institute published a report examining the ways in which regional newspapers in Europe have adapted to digital media—emphasizing a shift toward paid content. For NiemanLab, Hanaa’ Tameez and Laura Hazard Owen examined the report for its implications regarding local news publishers’ relationships with Facebook.

  • LOCAL NEWS MODELS SHIFT IN THE UNITED KINGDOM: A new white paper in the UK has proposed striking public notice requirements, proposing that local authorities shift to digital platforms rather than being required to post in local newspapers, The Press Gazette reported. Local news organizations protest that this move, which would eliminate a significant revenue source for many regional outlets, comes at the worst possible time. Elsewhere, The Public Interest News Foundation, a UK charity aiming to support public interest journalism across the country, was awarded charitable status, The Guardian reported. The organization, following a philanthropic model more common in the US than in the UK, says it will solicit funding from philanthropists and tech platforms.

  • AUDIO ARTICLES REACH MORE LISTENERS: A Danish publication has grown its audience by producing audio versions of its articles, reported last week. Though the audio articles are available for free on Zetland’s website, the publication offers subscribers the exclusive option to fast-forward or rewind.

  • BRITISH FILM MAGAZINE STAYS AFLOAT USING KICKSTARTER: An independent film magazine in the UK fended off closure with a Kickstarter campaign that raised £32,000, the Press Gazette reported. Simon Brew, who launched Film Stories in 2018, writes for free and believes in the importance of a print product. “Ultimately, what Brew wants to find again with the Kickstarter campaign is stability – and the opportunity to keep paying his freelance contributors,” Charlotte Tobit writes.

  • MORE LAYOFFS: For Poynter, in addition to maintaining a list of newsroom cutbacks amid the pandemic, Kristen Hare is tracking layoffs at newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises. She added more to the growing list this week, bringing the total of reported job losses above fifty. 

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers (at no cost) and job providers. The Ida B. Wells Society announced that its micro-loan program for journalists would no longer require recipients to repay their loans—you can apply here and donate here. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education. And The Lenfest Institute has begun the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network, which offers training and support for news publishers of many sizes and business models.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites