Will Coronavirus Kill Off the News Business Just When America Realized We Actually Need It?

Even the late great Charles Dickens, who churned out copy for 19th-century daily London rags like the Morning Chronicle before he went super long-form, would have struggled to keep up with the best of times and worst of times hitting America’s (and the world’s) newsrooms in the earth-shattering year of 2020.

On the upside, the public’s craving for accurate, real-time information about the coronavirus — what’s open or closed, how to stay safe, or how quickly is the global pandemic spreading — has sent internet traffic to news websites skyrocketing to once unthinkable levels. After several years when the New York Times was becoming Home Depot with its digital subscriptions while local papers were becoming your dying Main Street hardware store, people now desperately need news about their home town. Many local sites say online readership has more than doubled. What could go wrong?

A lot. Even as most newsrooms push for a new business model around digital subscriptions, the old model — heavily dependent on advertising — had helped keep U.S. journalism barely afloat…until now. With nearly half the nation on near-total lockdown and the rest reeling, most of the businesses that buy ads in local papers, especially in smaller towns or for youth-oriented alt-weeklies — like restaurants, nightclubs or boutiques — are closed and have nothing to advertise. Scores of layoffs are already happening.

Consider New Orleans. I’ve written in the past about the struggle of journalism to survive near the mouth of the Mighty Mississippi, where a perfect storm of lots of news (from climate change in our lowest-lying state and a swatch of chemical plants called “Cancer Alley” to a tradition of crooked government) and poverty — with fewer folks than average having digital access — had roiled the market. But with the city, on a per capita basis, now rivaling New York as a coronavirus epicenter, things have really hit the fan.

This week, the Advocate, the news org that survived to cover much of southern Louisiana, said that, with ad revenue vanishing rapidly, it would furlough a tenth of its workforce and the rest would work just four days a week. That’s happening as Louisiana’s hospitals and, increasingly, its morgues are overwhelmed with new cases. “This is a story that is moving and changing and if you take a three-day break, you’re going to miss a bunch,” an anonymous Advocate staffer complained to the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple of the shortened workweek.

Yet some journalists might envy the New Orleans scribes — having lost their jobs entirely or, in a couple cases, seen their publications shut down. Some venerable alt-weeklies like St Louis’ award-winning Riverfront Times are already shells of their recent selves. The virus is proving an insidious weapon against any business model for modern newsrooms.

Even the huge increase in web traffic has been somewhat negated by some advertisers demanding their digital ads not run next to stories about coronavirus, even though there’s little other news. Most newsrooms have seen upticks in digital subscribers — even after many news orgs moved coronavirus stories in front of the paywall that’s meant to drive subscriptions — but so far it’s not enough to offset the ad-loss tsunami.

This has all been a plot twist in the wider war for the future of journalism that escalated when President Trump was elected on a media-bashing platform in 2016. But even as the 45th POTUS attacked “fake news” and called journalists “enemies of the people,” while news orgs like the Post argued back that “democracy dies in darkness,” to many everyday readers this was often an abstract kind of cold war. Not anymore. The coronavirus has made it clear that access to accurate information can be a matter of life and death.

That’s particularly true because Trump has increasingly tried to dominate the flow of information about the coronavirus, through lengthy, televised briefings every afternoon, as well as added events like Tuesday’s town hall on Fox News and the president’s pesky Twitter feed. But sometimes Trump’s “facts” are flat-out wrong, and much of the rest can be self-serving propaganda. Rigorous independent journalists are the only real fact check.

Yet already our deeply divided nation can’t agree on a common set of facts about the coronavirus and how to prevent it. A CBS News/YouGov poll released this week revealed among Democrats, a healthy 72% trust the national media for information on the coronavirus — not far behind the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the respondent’s governor — while Trump rated just 14%. Yet among Republicans, a whopping 90% trust Trump and only 13% believed the national media.

In a time of creeping authoritarianism, the economic collapse of much of the news media will make this problem worse. And many of the smaller towns where Trumpism is already entrenched will lose any reality-based counter-balance. That’s on top of the general erosion of civic life and connectedness these communities will feel without local media.

What is to be done? The formula that many news orgs have been refining to stay afloat in the 2020s — in part because of ad dollars that were already disappearing before the pandemic — will struggle to keep up. The uptick in digital subscriptions — the core of that survival strategy — could become a downtick if the recession lingers. Sponsored events, another new tool, can’t take place in cities that are on lockdown. Big time philanthropy — which has been the saving grace for the Inquirer after its 2016 donation to the non-profit Lenfest Institute — may be similar challenged, or at least distracted, by the challenge of coronavirus.

That brings us to the bailer-outer of last resort: Washington. The idea of government support for journalism has long been a non-starter for folks in the business, myself included, for an obvious reason: the fear that any taxpayer dollars, doled out through the good graces of politicians, might — even subconsciously — cause journalists to pull their punches when writing about those pols. And that was a concern long before the bill-signer at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a thin-skinned shouter of “fake news.”

But the bizarre dichotomy of the current crisis — journalism that’s vital to cover a virus that’s eating away what little is left of the business model — has, at least in my opinion, dramatically changed the moral calculus. This week, Craig Aaron, CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press, wrote a much-discussed piece in Columbia Journalism Review arguing that “Journalism needs a stimulus” via Congress, to the tune of $5 billion.

Aaron argued in the piece that the money — a fraction of the more than $2.5 trillion the feds have pumped into coronavirus relief packages so far — could increase funding for public radio and TV in underserved areas, support local newsroom jobs for the duration of the health crisis and related slowdown, and support innovative news-gathering projects. This agenda could be supported going forward by a small tax on the kind of targeted digital ads that made Google and Facebook wealthy while decimating local news.

“The last weeks have driven home how important it is to have local reporters telling what’s going on,” Aaron told me by phone Wednesday. “People are desperate for trustworthy information.” He acknowledged that the idea of government relief funds for journalism may have been unthinkable before the crisis — but so was the $2-trillion-plus package now in the pipeline. (Aaron notes the final bill has $75 million for public media and small-business support that could go to private newsrooms, but he said any grand journalism stimulus would have to come in the next package, which seems certain as the crisis persists.)

Aaron also argued that the success of investigative journalism by the public-funded PBS Frontline or efforts in other countries (most notably the BBC) should quell ethical worries, especially if journalism stimulus grants were administered by an independent board, as removed as possible from politicians’ control. It’s a convincing argument. This longtime skeptic is on board, if it can be done in this right fashion.

Until then, I’d urge those who are still collecting a paycheck, and loading up on news about where to buy milk or whether a loved one needs a COVID-19 test, to consider subscribing to your local hometown newspaper and not just the two or three national brands. (If you live in greater Philly, the Inquirer link is here.)

But we’ll likely need even more. The coronavirus crisis has revealed America’s badly frayed safety net, from underfunded rural hospitals to underpaid workers in the food supply chain. Journalists providing accurate, real-time information are a critical part of that web. America shouldn’t try to find out if we can live without it.

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