A rural public-radio station wrote to us, “We anticipate a sharp drop in station sponsorship revenue over the next several months and that will affect our budget through the summer. A hefty share of our sponsorship money comes from local arts organizations promoting local events. Those events are being cancelled in large numbers and we are losing the associated sponsorship revenue.”
A weekly that serves a large African American community is losing ad revenue due to its inability to print for a few weeks. At the current pace, the journalists there estimate that they can hold on for only a few more months. A nonprofit that applied to Report for America in hopes of expanding its coverage of a statehouse just told us that it was pulling out of our program because its small endowment was shrinking, and it might not be able to retain all of its current staff, let alone bring on new reporters. Another public-radio station has canceled its planned pledge drive because “it just doesn't feel right right now.” Nieman Lab reported that the economic repercussions of the virus may cause many alternative weeklies to close.
Annie Lowrey: This is not a recession. It’s an ice age.
These examples are from the fortunate communities that still have news organizations. Hundreds of counties have already lost their local news source amid years of declining revenue. A news desert combined with a pandemic is another public-health disaster waiting to happen. Such communities will either have no local information or rely entirely on gossip and social media.
Local news outlets are shrinking or closing when the public needs them the most. Some of the most important guidance right now is highly localized: Where can I go to get tested? Can my kids still get free or reduced-price meals while schools are closed? Which grocery stores deliver? Which public institutions are closed? Which local organizations need donations, and how do I donate? Which advice on the local Facebook group is accurate and which isn’t? Local journalism is also an important way for public-health officials to spot trends and potential solutions.
So what can be done to help keep journalism in your community alive?
The federal government can do something quite concrete right now: As part of its stimulus plans, it should funnel $500 million in spending for public-health ads through local media.
The government already spends about $1 billion on public-service ads that promote initiatives such as military recruitment and census participation. The stimulus should add another $1 billion to support the communication of accurate health-related information. Some of those ads should go to social-media platforms and national news networks, but half should go to local news organizations.
This is not a bailout; the government will be buying an effective way of getting health messages to the public, and could even customize the notices to specific audiences. Distributing the ads can be done in an entirely nonideological, nonpartisan way (so the Trump administration doesn’t play favorites among the media). A 2011 report by the Federal Communications Commission, of which one of us, Steve Waldman, was the lead author, recommended the use of federal ad dollars to help local news, concluding that ad-technology platforms have made it easier to distribute funds fairly. The government should also funnel census-related ads through local media.