By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
It’s a harsh paradox.
Media readership and viewership are soaring as citizens seek life-or-death information about the coronavirus: Where to get tested? Does my hospital have enough ventilators? Is it safe to go outside?
But the accompanying economic decline is killing off advertising — for restaurants, cars, travel, entertainment — and other support that has kept many news organizations going.
For some, the events of the past few weeks have already proved too much for their fragile existence. Alternative weeklies have stopped printing. Local dailies are laying off staff at already decimated newsrooms. Many others, including digital-only newsrooms, are hanging on by a thread.
It’s happening around the world: Newspapers in Australia and Britain announced in the past few days that they were going out of business or suspending print publication.
“Journalists are essential in this moment,” Craig Aaron, president and co-CEO of Free Press, a Washington-based advocacy nonprofit, told me in an interview. “We need to keep reporters working, and we have to do it now.”
Toward that end, Aaron is pressing for a variety of steps that might have seemed radical just weeks ago. His proposal, published this week in Columbia Journalism Review, includes doubling federal funds for public media, direct support for newsrooms committed to local coverage, the establishment of a “First Amendment Fund” to support new approaches to newsgathering.
He’s not alone in looking for immediate answers and advocating for help.
“Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. And buy a subscription to your local newspaper.”
That’s the advice Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott offered to citizens in an Atlantic piece titled “The Coronavirus Is Killing Local News.”
Waldman is co-founder of Report for America, and Sennott is CEO of the GroundTruth Project, both organizations dedicated to strengthening journalism. They do not believe that the federal government should “bail out” newsrooms. But “future stimulus plans should include steps that help save local news organizations,” they wrote. Among them: The government “should include in its future stimulus plans $500 million in spending for public-health ads through local media.”
Even now, the federal government spends large amounts on public-service ads for military recruitment and census participation. “The government will be buying an effective way of getting health messages to the public,” they wrote.
They also called for national and community foundations, as well as private philanthropists, to create special funds for news organizations or increase current spending.
They note that foundations are already required to spend 5 percent of their endowments on grants each year, but now it’s time to go beyond that: “Going above that 5 percent target would unleash millions of dollars.”
And individuals should not only subscribe to local news organizations, but also donate to nonprofit news organizations such as Web-based investigative newsrooms.
“The newspapers whose websites you keep refreshing need to keep operating,” wrote Amber Hunt, a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, as she urged people to subscribe to several news organizations if they could. “Ads are disappearing, and who knows when they’ll be back.”
The current advertising decline comes at a time when news organizations are already in deep trouble, mostly because of the precipitous decline in advertising revenue, which has migrated to the largest technology platforms, such as Facebook and Google, for many years.
Some news organizations, including some of the largest national newspapers, seem to be on a solid footing for now.
But more than 2,000 newspapers have closed over the past 15 years, and a growing number of American counties are now deemed news deserts; places where there is no regular source of local news.
Many others are still hanging on, but sometimes in name only, their editorial ranks so diminished that they are seen as “ghost newspapers.”
News-industry experts have been predicting for years that a recession or severe economic downturn would deliver a death blow to these already troubled businesses. And now a public-health crisis has come along to threaten exactly that.
“The Coronavirus Is a Media Extinction Event” headlined Craig Silverman’s piece in BuzzFeed News, describing the advertising free fall — and readership surge — at the Seattle Times, which has been delivering outstanding coverage in one of the virus’s epicenters. (BuzzFeed itself is cutting staff pay through May as it tries to avoid layoffs amid the downturn; CEO Jonah Peretti said he would forgo his salary for that period.)
“Virtually all entertainment advertising is gone, restaurants gone,” and car advertising way down, Seattle Times president Alan Fisco told Silverman.
It’s a dire situation, the effects of which certainly can’t be fully reversed. At most, the worst outcomes might be kept at bay for now.
I don’t know whether any of the proposals for doing that would be successful.
But at a time when good reporting has seldom been more vital and more threatened, I do know that we need to try our damnedest.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.