Covering the Pandemic

What needs to be done to help the media industry?

April 24, 2020

If it wasn’t already obvious that the media industry was in dire straits before the coronavirus came along, it has become abundantly obvious now. Every day, it seems, news outlets large and small are announcing waves of furloughs, salary cuts, and layoffs for significant numbers of their employees—the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Publishing, Conde Nast, BuzzFeed, McClatchy (which had already filed for bankruptcy before the pandemic), even Fox Corp. have all implemented cuts. Protocol, a tech news startup launched by the owners of Politico, in February, just laid off almost half its newsroom. Some local newspapers have shut down completely and may not be able to return once the economy picks up. What can be done about this? Should there be a government bailout? Should digital platforms like Google and Facebook be forced to subsidize a public fund for media? To hear some answers, CJR convened a virtual panel on Galley, our discussion platform. 

“It is now abundantly clear that there is no commercial solution for local journalism,” Victor Pickard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a recent book, Democracy Without Journalism, said. “Local journalism was in shambles even before the pandemic struck. But now the newspaper industry—which is still our major source for original local reporting in the US—is facing existential doom. Given that context, we need immediate emergency funding.” Pickard went on to say that any funds handed out should be conditional on news outlets becoming nonprofits or working toward that status. “Otherwise, we risk propping up failed commercial models,” he said. 

Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA union, recommended that the government implement direct payroll grants to news workers. “That would go directly to people on the job and could be done with a certain amount per person,” he said. “But it would need restrictions so that it could only be used for limited purposes and would not go to executive bonuses, dividends, buybacks, or golden parachutes.” 

ICYMI: China, conspiracy theories, and the murky coronavirus origin story

Craig Aaron, a leader of Free Press, an advocacy organization, talked about a letter that his group, along with PEN America and Common Cause, sent to Congress. The letter called for immediate action, seeking emergency funds for newsrooms and increased federal appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support public media of all kinds, especially on the local level. Aaron also raised the need for increased advertising spending by the government, as a way of generating revenue for publishing companies.

Melissa Davis, the acting director of the Colorado Media Project and a vice-president of the Gates Family Foundation, agreed that ad revenue would help. “I also don’t think there is any good argument—especially at this moment in time—that local media businesses are any less deserving of public support than local restaurants or car dealerships or even arts organizations,” she said. Chris Horne, of The Devil Strip, a cooperatively owned news organization in Akron, Ohio, said that rather than government-sponsored ads—which can get ethically tricky—he favors a loan fund to start and strengthen local media co-ops and nonprofits, similar to the loans that the government provided to help communities bring in electricity, in the 1930s, when many couldn’t afford to pay commercial suppliers.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

But it was Steven Waldman, a co-founder of Report For America, who offered one of the few ready-made plans: this week, he announced the latest cohort of Report For America journalists, 225 reporters and editors who will be working (remotely) for more than 160 news organizations across 46 states, as well as Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Report For America places journalists in nonprofit newsrooms like Mississippi Today, at public radio stations like KEUR in Utah and KERA in Texas, and at newspapers like the Detroit Free Press and the Dallas Morning News. Waldman said, too, that he would be in favor of incentivizing hedge funds to donate local newspapers they own to communities, which could run them as nonprofits.

Here’s more from our virtual panel:

  • Will it happen? Jonathan O’Connell, a reporter for the Washington Post, said that getting funding from the government for local news publishers “is one of the hardest sells.” He went on, “President Trump, in particular, as well as other politicians of both parties, have taken to really attacking the integrity of the press with such vitriol and regularity that I think a bailout for the media is going to be hard for some members to get behind.” Still, some media companies might be eligible for existing loans or grant programs, he said, and there might be a chance of getting support for steering existing government ad spending toward local news.
  • Re-invent it: Sarah Alvarez, of Outlier Media, a service journalism organization in Detroit, said that if she could completely reshape public media, which she believes would be necessary even without the coronavirus, “I would want to get a bunch of people thinking about what information channels and processes we need to be public in this day and age.” She continued, “Fifty years ago it was enough to turn over some radio stations and a television station to work in service of the general public good. There was a lot of value created in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but it is not enough by a long shot.”
  • Communities: Pickard said that ultimately, newsrooms need to be “owned and controlled by local communities and journalists themselves. And toward this aim, the current crisis is an opportunity to restructure our news and information systems.” He noted promising examples, such as the Salt Lake Tribune, which recently transitioned to a nonprofit. But there are some cautionary tales, too, Pickard said, including the Canadian government, which was criticized for subsidizing incumbent publishers over independents. The BBC’s “Local Democracy Reporting” project also faced criticism for helping out the same publishers who were to blame for the local journalism crisis.
  • God will provide: Anne Nelson, the author of a recent book called Shadow Network: Media, Money, and Secret Hub of the Radical Right, said that many fundamentalist and right-wing media operations have “sidestepped the business model problem.” For example, she said, the American Family Radio and Bott Radio networks carry ads from a consortium of organizations that receive funding from donors such as the DeVos family, as well as groups linked to the Council for National Policy. The news operation of Salem Media, she added, has built a business model based on payments from pastors of megachurches and other religious organizations.


Other notable stories:

  • There were some raised eyebrows when Jim VandeHei, the co-founder and chief executive of Axios, announced that his site will be getting close to five million dollars as a low-interest pandemic-related loan from the Payroll Protection Program, according to a report by The Daily Beast. “That’s a little bit weird,” an anonymous news executive said, someone whose organization is too large to benefit. (The program was designed to help small businesses with 500 employees or less.) “It strikes me as one of those appearance-of-conflict arguments that are obviously pretty compelling inside traditional journalism and ivory tower-ish circles,” Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, said.
  • Facebook executives have claimed that they are committed to combating misinformation about COVID-19 circulating on their platform, but The Markup reports that Facebook had an ad-targeting category for users interested in “pseudoscience,” which, according to Facebook’s ad portal, contained more than 78 million people. As a test, The Markup successfully paid to advertise a post targeting those people and paid to “boost” (or promote) a post targeting those interested in pseudoscience on Instagram, which Facebook owns. After The Markup asked Facebook to respond, the pseudoscience category was removed.
  • Google designed and considered rolling out a feature that would allow readers to tip or give money to media outlets as part of its Contributor program, according to a report from TechCrunch. Screenshots of the tipping feature showed the ability to make one-time donations of twenty cents to five dollars to help support journalism. “Want to see more content like this on our site? Support with a contribution,” one version explained. Google mocked up designs for tipping on the sites of The New York Times, Wired, TechCrunch, and others, the report says. TechCrunch said it obtained screenshots of the feature from a source that provided evidence that they came directly from Google.
  • With no major sporting events and barely any travel, The New York Times plans to stop printing hard copies of those sections in the Sunday edition and replace them with a section called “At Home,” focused on life while sheltering in place. As Cheddar, a business news site, first reported, At Home will debut this weekend, and the Sunday Sports section will be folded into the front section of the newspaper.
  • Google has been criticized by some of the United Kingdom’s biggest news publishers, according to the Financial Times, for failing to adequately explain its approach to blocking and filtering advertisements alongside coronavirus-related content as media companies face plunging digital advertising revenues. Many outlets are using keyword blacklists and content filters in relation to coverage of the pandemic, which prevent their ads from running next to stories that include specific terms, such as “coronavirus.” Some media companies have accused Google of a lack of transparency, as even innocuous coverage—explainers and uplifting human interest stories—have been caught up in its filters.
  • A Chinese citizen-journalist who posted videos in Wuhan has resurfaced after going missing for almost two months. According to a Reuters report, the man, Li Zehua, said in a YouTube video that he had been forced into quarantine. Li was one of three citizen-journalists who went missing in Wuhan recently. A video he published on February 20 showed porters being hired to transport corpses, apparently those of coronavirus victims. The clip was viewed 850,000 times on YouTube, which is blocked in China. Days later, Li posted live video footage of police entering his home.
  • Twitter will delete “unverified claims” that could lead directly to the destruction of 5G transmission towers in the UK, where conspiracy theories blaming telecommunications for spreading the coronavirus have led people to burn and topple towers in their midst. Twitter executives said that they would not remove 5G and coronavirus misinformation, but they would remove direct incitement to action, such as tweets that call on people to “go and destroy the cell towers in your neighborhood.” Tweets that could cause “widespread panic” will also be removed, such as messages claiming that grocery stores would soon be empty of food.
  • Ben Domenech, the publisher of The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, broke federal labor laws last year, when he tweeted that he’d send employees “back to the salt mine” if they tried to unionize. Domenech’s tweet was an “obvious threat,” not a joke or an expression of opinion shielded by the First Amendment, Judge Kenneth Chu said on Wednesday. Chu ruled that the timing of the tweet—which came on the same day as a walkout by union employees at Vox Media—sent a message to employees.
  • Independent Digital News and Media, owner of the Independent and Indy100, has put a “limited number” of staff on furlough and cut wages for all remaining employees, according to Press Gazette. All of those not put on paid leave will take a twenty-percent salary cut, starting next month and lasting at least the end of June, the company told staff; there is also a hiring freeze in place. (Those earning less than $46,500 a year will be exempt from the pay cut.) According to the Press Gazette report, Independent staff were given only fifteen minutes notice of the video call that announced these measures. Afterward, there was no time for questions.

ICYMI: China’s expulsion of American journalists also affects Chinese staff—and the future of reporting in China


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.