Covering the Pandemic

Coronavirus patterns make local news even more important

May 21, 2020

During the coronavirus pandemic, Ed Yong, a staff writer for The Atlantic, has written an impressive series of in-depth articles on the virus that causes COVID-19 and the often confusing details about how it has spread, what medical experts say we should be doing about it, and what governments have actually been doing (or not doing). On Wednesday, the magazine published his latest, under the headline: “America’s Patchwork Pandemic Is Fraying Even Further.” In the piece, Yong looks at the way that the virus has affected different states: In some, the number of new cases has been falling for some time, which suggests that they have things relatively under control (at least for now). But in others, new cases continue to rise, and some states saw an initial decline but have since seen a spike. As Yong’s article puts it: “The coronavirus is coursing through different parts of the U.S. in different ways, making the crisis harder to predict, control, or understand.”

As CJR editor and publisher Kyle Pope noted on Twitter, one implication of this patchwork pattern is that credible local news and information becomes more important than ever. There’s no chance for a single coherent national narrative about the virus or how it’s being dealt with (or not dealt with) because it doesn’t look the same in every state, or even every city and town. And that in turn makes the precipitous decline of local news more acute, and potentially more dangerous. According to a Brookings report, of the counties that had reported cases of COVID-19 by early April, 37 percent had lost their local newspaper in the past 15 years (although Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab notes that there are good reasons to be skeptical of that specific statistic). If the virus does indeed resurge and states need to shut down again, Yong points out, “people may not comply, because they’ll be misinformed and distrustful.” A medical anthropologist said the measures required to contain the virus—testing people, tracing any contacts they might have had, and so on.—depend on “how engaged and invested the population is.”

For anyone living in New York City, coverage of how Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo delayed a shutdown order—in part because of an ongoing power struggle between them—is readily available because outlets like ProPublica and the New York Times have been writing about it, and calling attention to the impact of decisions. But what happens to those who live in smaller towns and cities, especially those where the virus is not on the decline, as it appears to be in New York and New Jersey, but where it seems to be gaining strength, as Yong says it is in states like Texas and North Carolina? Texas is lucky enough to have the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit that devotes itself to state coverage the way ProPublica does the national scene. But not every state has something like that—in fact, most don’t.

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That’s not to say these states don’t have newspapers and other outlets that do good journalism, on the virus and other topics, but many have been downsized so often that they were already stretched before the pandemic came along. There are flashes of good news now and then on the local journalism front, such as the launch Wednesday of a new nonprofit journalism entity in Detroit called BridgeDetroit, funded with $5 million from the Knight Foundation and others, or the news that former Google executive Eric Schmidt and his wife have donated $4.7 million to a community media network run by National Public Radio, aimed at filling in some news deserts. But these kinds of announcements are few and far between.

Even if there was a coherent national narrative on the coronavirus, it would have to compete with the existing incoherent national narrative—the one coming from the president and the White House that says everything is fine, the virus response is going according to plan, there is no shortage of tests, hydroxchloroquine works (the president claims to be taking it), and the virus will be gone soon. And the car-crash-like nature of Trump’s behavior draws coverage, with every move by a governor used as ammunition for his ongoing myth-making and saber-rattling. And so the cycle continues.

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Here’s more on local news and the virus:

  • Remote benefits: Journalists who used to work in newsrooms in New York City and Washington, DC have had to report from their homes, and in some cases from the states where they used to live before they moved to the city, if they are sheltering at family homes. And that has had some spin-off benefits, according to Richard Tofel, the president of ProPublica. “A distributed workforce has some challenges, to be sure, but also significant benefits. One is that, as a national news organization, it really does help provide a more national and varied perspective,” Tofel told CNN.
  • Taxpayer owned: As the media industry searches for alternative funding models for local journalism, an interesting experiment from American history has been largely overlooked, writes Victor Pickard, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and author of the recent book “Democracy Without Journalism?” Just after the turn of the century, he says, Los Angeles experimented with a municipal newspaper: a news outlet owned and financed by taxpayers. The paper was popular, but it didn’t last—according to some reports, it fell victim to smear campaigns launched by rival commercial papers.
  • Not just the US: Other countries are also struggling with the same challenges that local journalism faces in the United States: according to a report in The Guardian, more than 150 newsrooms have closed temporarily or for good in Australia since early 2019—including the country’s BuzzFeed newsroom, which the company said it was shutting down (along with much of its UK office) earlier this week. A number of family-owned media enterprises have shut completely, including the Cape and Torres News, which stopped the presses after 60 years, and a 100-year-old daily in the northern part of Australia that was shut down by its owner, the Elliott Newspaper Group.


Other notable stories:

  • Americans who rely on President Donald Trump and the White House coronavirus task force for their news about COVID-19 are by far the most negative in their assessments about whether the media coverage of the virus has been accurate, and whether the crisis has been exaggerated, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Less than a quarter of this group say media coverage of the outbreak has been largely accurate.
  • Alexandria Neason writes for CJR about the media’s responsibility when it comes to reporting on the deaths of Black victims like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. While Arbery’s death—at the hands of two white men who shot him while he was jogging—eventually got wide coverage because of a leaked video, the death of Taylor—shot by police after they raided her house by mistake—got significantly less attention. The journalism industry “made its choice about which stories, which lives, deserved focus,” writes Neason. “In doing so, it did what it often does: erase Black women from the narrative of America’s stubborn history of police violence and vigilante murder.”
  • The BBC will be forced to make more cuts as it faces an estimated $150 million in lost income for this financial year, according to a report in the Press Gazette. That’s in addition to about $1 billion in cost savings the publicly-owned broadcaster had already committed to make by 2022, with about $100 million expected to come from the news department. The BBC had previously announced that it will also be delaying its shift to free broadcasts for any British citizens over 75 years of age as a result of pressure on revenues from the coronavirus lockdown.
  • ClickHole, the satirical news site formerly owned by G/O Media, has returned to publishing after four months of hiatus. The site, which was originally part of The Onion, was acquired by the game company Cards Against Humanity. Co-founder Max Temkin told BuzzFeed News at the time that the plan was to keep the entities separate and allow ClickHole to “operate independently, with financial support from Cards Against Humanity.” The game company also arranged for ClickHole staffers to become majority owners of the site.
  • The Atlantic looks at the One America Network, a news outlet that is much loved by Trump and his followers, but often seems to be just short of a parody version of a news network. The magazine also notes that despite claims made by the network’s owners, Robert Herring and his son Charles, and the profile that Trump has given it, OAN viewership appears to be extremely tiny. The actual numbers remain a mystery, the Atlantic says, because the company doesn’t participate in Nielsen surveys and won’t share subscriber data. But out of a potential pool of 35 million cable viewers, data from other sources indicates that only about 500,000 people watch OAN.
  • The New York Times profiles Rafael and Omar Rivero, the co-founders of a Facebook page called Occupy Democrats, which the Times describes as “the social media mavens of the left who are quickly emerging as a counterweight to the dominance of right-wing online sites.” The 33-year-old identical twins started the page eight years ago and have reached a digital dominance that is rarely seen among liberals, the Times says, one that regularly outperforms Trump’s own page, as well as the Daily Caller, Fox News and other right-wing websites.
  • When the owner of Le Soleil and five other French-language daily newspapers in the Canadian province of Quebec went bankrupt last year, editors in the six newsrooms decided they couldn’t let their papers go under and came together to form a co-operative that manages all six titles, the International Journalists Network reports. They launched a subscription campaign that brought in 2,000 readers as well as a donation campaign that brought in $3 million. And all 350 employees at the six papers agreed to give five percent of their salaries to help defray the cost of forming the co-op.
  • Despite repeated statements by Facebook and YouTube that they were taking action against a widely-shared conspiracy theory video called “Plandemic,” which included a number of inaccurate and potentially dangerous statements about the coronavirus, the clip was liked, commented on and shared more than 2.5 million times, according to a report by the New York Times, which used data from the CrowdTangle social-measurement service. A little over a week after it was published, the Times says the video had been viewed more than eight million times on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
  • Given its name, and a profile picture of actress Cate Blanchett playing Galadriel from the “Lord of the Rings” movie franchise, the Facebook page of a group known as the Czech Elves looks like just another meme. But this volunteer army fights misinformation and propaganda, according to a report from Coda Story. The group got started in 2018, and was inspired by counter-disinformation movements in the Baltic states. Members include people from all walks of life, including doctors, students, and members of the military, the report says.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.