Local news allows us to remain informed about our government, school boards and elections. Like the story last year about former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, who was indicted on fraud over sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books.
Only the dedicated efforts of journalists at The Baltimore Sun brought it to the attention of local readers and continued to inform Marylanders over the months of the subsequent trial. Without local reporting, stories like these might not be told.
And yet the local news industry is in dire straits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Advertising revenue has dried up as businesses are shuttered to combat the virus, leading to layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts for thousands of journalists. Journalists are essential workers, and Marylanders depend on local news to know what’s happening in their communities, including getting lifesaving public health information about the impact of COVID-19 in their areas. Many outlets are even making their online COVID-19 coverage free for all readers as a public service, despite the financial strains they face.
Journalists who are still employed have been heading to reporting assignments where their risk of catching COVID-19 is higher. And others have been targeted for violence by police — in violation of the First Amendment — while covering protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
COVID-19 has ravaged the local news industry, but many news organizations were struggling to stay afloat even before the pandemic. The shift in ad revenue away from print and digital outlets toward tech behemoths like Google and Facebook has hollowed out the industry. A spree of mergers and acquisitions by private equity and hedge funds on Wall Street have taken a further toll. These new owners haven’t shown foresight or an ounce of concern for the journalists who help tell important community stories or the health of the industry, and have often pushed it further into decline.
Many communities have seen their options for local news dwindle as economic pressure and consolidation have created news deserts across the country. Since 2004, the U.S. has lost a staggering 2,100 newspapers, many of them small, local papers outside of major cities. In Maryland alone, we’ve seen 57 closures or mergers.
COVID-19 has made all these challenges even worse, and has the makings of an extinction-level event for local news. This would be especially devastating given that local news plays such an important role in our communities. In an era permeated by fear, misinformation, and declining trust, local news outlets remain among the media organizations that Americans trust most. Their reporting helps hold governments accountable and increases civic engagement while reducing partisanship. When these news sources (and their role as watchdogs) disappear, we see an increased risk of political corruption, and governments get more careless with borrowing and spending.
The situation facing journalists and readers in Maryland and beyond is dire, but it’s not too late to take action and save the news. Congressional leaders in Washington have a bipartisan solution to keep local news afloat. In May, a group of senators introduced Senate Bill 3718, which would expand access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to local news outlets that have previously been blocked from accessing the program, because they’re owned by large chains.
This would be a critical lifeline for many newspapers. It’s time for Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen to join this growing coalition and guarantee that Marylanders remain well-informed during and after this crisis.
If we allow the news industry to sink any further, journalists who serve their communities will lose their jobs and they won’t be replaced by national news. Just as importantly, readers will be deprived of the role local news plays in connecting communities together: through high school sports, local political issues and governance, events and business news. We’re already struggling with a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. We can’t afford to make it worse by losing local news.
Jon Schleuss (Twitter:@gaufre) is the president of The NewsGuild, a labor union representing 24,000 members of the media across the country.