A colleague at The Seattle Times calls me the “Titanic Beat” reporter, a reference to the doomed ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage 108 years ago.
If they were ships, local newsrooms would be listing, but I prefer to think of my job as “The Shackleton Beat,” in homage to the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. His ship was demolished by the pack ice in 1915, but a year and a half later, he brought home his entire crew, plus the photos and scientific observations they set out to gather. Unlike Titanic, the free-press system is not on its maiden voyage and, like Shackleton’s “Endurance,” has a serious mission: democracy’s watchdog.
Here’s a quick summary of the news about the latest efforts to save the free press system.
• As U.S. unemployment rose to levels not seen since the Great Depression, the Los Angeles Times newsroom guild announced it has prevented layoffs by negotiating a “work sharing” arrangement by which workers keep benefits, lose some paid hours and can apply for partial underemployment benefits from the state.
• The Chicago Tribune’s newsroom union has delivered to Tribune Publishing shareholders a letter asking them to vote to unseat two board members placed there by the newsroom-cutting hedge fund that is stalking Tribune.
• The Irish Times reported the journalists’ union in that country has added its voice to the chorus of demands that social-media platforms at last pay to rescue local news businesses.
• Canada’s major dailies and the newsroom union have called on the federal government to follow France and Australia in demanding Google and Facebook pay local newsrooms when snippets and links are published on the platforms.
• In developing countries, the press also has seen advertising revenues vanish. Writing for The Guardian, Kaamil Ahmed says that leaves them vulnerable to political manipulation of subsidies and the whims of billionaire owners.
• The leading analyst of America’s news business, Ken Doctor, warns the economic crash could land more than half of American newspaper circulation under the control of just three companies.
• While Payroll Protection Program loans have given locally owned newspapers like The Seattle Times an eight-week lifeline, many of Washington’s dailies and weeklies were not eligible because they’re owned by companies that are too large in terms of employees.
• Just over the state line, the East Oregonian announced the disappearance of ad revenues forces the Pendleton paper to cut its print schedule from five days to three. Staff there have also been on reduced hours during the economic freeze.
• Worth noting as Congress builds new stimulus programs is this finding by Duke researchers: Newspapers are outnumbered three-to-one by TV, radio and digital native outlets, but produce 60% of original local news in service to civic life.
” … each lost reporter deprives citizens of information that we urgently need, and each expands the opportunity for a misinformation contagion to spread alongside the virus. We need more, not less, news …” — Michael Copps, former FCC Commissioner, May 7
“I believe in newspapers … Especially local papers which share news about our friends and neighbors, students who do well and students who play sports and the occasional troublemaker who ends up in court.” — Berkshire Record (Great Barrington, Massachusetts) columnist Mickey Friedman on the death of his paper, April 30.
It wasn’t all bad news.
Last week, the Local Media Association had facilitated almost $1 million in tax-deductible donations to support local news outlets. Washington papers like The News Tribune of Tacoma and The Bellingham Herald have already raised tens of thousands of dollars. Though not enough to replace lost ad revenues, what a morale boost.
With newspapers laying off staff, canceling print runs and even going out of business, it’s uplifting to learn that the Daily Clintonian in Clinton, Indiana, which closed April 10, has been sold to a company that intends to restart it. George Carey, whose family operated it since 1936, said the new owners will rename it The Clintonian to reflect the move from five days per week to two. Carey said the first edition is scheduled for Saturday.