Supporting local journalism in the age of Covid-19

June 1, 2020 • Comment, Media Economics, Recent • by

Damian Radcliffe proposes seven guiding principles for ways to help the local news industry survive the coronavirus crisis.

Local journalism plays a vital role in communities but is at risk of becoming an endangered species in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic risks being an “extinction-level event” for many news organisations around the world. With the crisis showing no sign of abating any time soon, it’s too early for the full implications to be realised. However, it’s clear that the news industry that emerges on the other side will look very different from the one that went into it.

Even outlets such as The Atlantic, which were perceived as having a “good pandemic” have been adversely affected. The Washington D.C. based outlet in May laid off 68 employees, equivalent to 17% of its staff, despite adding 160,000 new subscribers in the past eight months (and 90,000 since March 2020).

In the United States alone, over 36,000 news media workers have been impacted by the pandemic, with jobs lost, journalists furloughed and newsrooms shuttered across the country. A similar dynamic is playing out across the globe.

Against this backdrop, governments, tech companies, foundations and other funders are under increasing pressure to support the news industry.

These clarion calls are understandable. After all, without some form of assistance, there is a very real risk that the newsroom jobs and media outlets lost to Covid-19 will never return.

So how can policymakers, foundations, funders, or individuals best support journalism during this crisis?

Local news media are vital to society

Arguably, many of these efforts should focus on local journalism – the sector most at risk. Local outlets have a smaller advertising pool to choose from, and they are the ones hurting the most from the economic and advertising downturn.

Without support, the losses sustained by local news media could have a profoundly negative impact on the type of society we live in.

This is not hyperbole. Evidence suggests that without a vibrant local news industry, public officials are potentially less accountable than they should be, fewer people run for office, and citizens become less engaged with elections.

Moreover, at the time of a major public health crisis, there is no master narrative. There is a myriad of narratives that need to be contextualised and explained. The need for local journalism has never been clearer. National news outlets cannot do this alone. Their efforts need to be complemented by newsrooms in different communities who can explain what is happening, and its implications, specifically for a local audience.

Bearing all this in mind, I propose the following seven guiding principles for policymakers and funders:

1. Provide direct support to keep outlets operational – even at a reduced capacity.

If outlets disappear completely, they are unlikely to come back. They will be lost for good. Focus on areas with single news sources, to mitigate the risk of them becoming news deserts.

2. Support coverage of key beats by funding specific roles and series.

The Texas Tribune, the Guardian and others have successfully crowdfunded series and reporters to deliver specific coverage. We will need more of this, with a focus on the most important information needs at this time. Those beats, and stories, may not attract huge audiences. But, more than ever, public service journalism is paramount.

3. Do not just support legacy, and in particular print, media.

Local NPR and PBS affiliates produce incredibly important work. As do many digital-only outlets. Yet too often, funding efforts focus on propping up legacy media.

4. Consider the ownership structure of the organisations you are supporting.

Many legacy news organisations are massively over-leveraged. A number are also public companies, or hedge funds, committed to delivering returns to investors and shareholders. In the current situation, funders need to ensure that their money is going to the frontline, not supporting dividends or servicing debt.

5. Seek opportunities for pop-up interventions in news and broadband deserts.

The digital and information divide needs to be addressed by determining which products will best convey important information to the communities who need it. This should include content in other languages and the delivery of news by SMS. Pop-up efforts could have an incredibly important short-term impact, and therefore should not be discounted.

6. Ask: what will the news landscape look like on the other side?

Yes, we need a band-aid right now. However, at the same time, funders should ascertain if they can address both short-term needs and long-term considerations. Are the two mutually exclusive? How can interventions support news entrepreneurs? How can they drive new, collaborative, sustainable behaviours?

7. Support freelancers and journalists at risk of “being lost” to the industry.

Journalism has long had a diversity problem. This situation risks amplifying the issue. We will need to see hardship funds, 0% loans, free training, the creation of support networks (to help to tackle social isolation and other mental health issues, which are hardest for minorities and those who work on their own to deal with) and other efforts to support those who are most vulnerable and thus most likely to leave the industry. Like the outlets they work for, once gone, they may never come back.

In its wake, the novel coronavirus is leaving a path of destruction, which risks making the 2008-09 financial downturn look like a picnic. The problems outlined here are not new, but the Covid-19 pandemic throws the need to address them into sharper focus.

If we do not begin to think creatively about the solutions, and principles, which will guide the future of our industry – and its role in society – then we are doomed to repeat past mistakes; and that should be unconscionable. I hope therefore that these suggestions offer some food for thought, as we try to digest what is happening and determine the best way forward.

Opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of the EJO.

If you liked this story, you may also be interested in The Future of Local News.

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Image by DieElchin from Pixabay.

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