Congress delivered a Winter Solstice present to communities with struggling local news sources. Lawmakers passed the long-stalled next coronavirus relief bill, and it includes help for thousands of newspapers and broadcasters left out of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed back in the spring.
The CARES Act contained the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided forgivable loans to businesses if they kept paying employees. Many local news outlets applied for and received help through the PPP program. The Seattle Times received a loan worth about $10 million that it used to keep paying 499 employees.
In its rush to pass CARES, Congress blocked many local news organizations from participating. Newspapers and broadcasters owned by a larger parent company were ineligible for PPP loans.
The successor to CARES fixes that mistake. Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell wrote a provision that will make thousands of local newspapers, radio and television broadcasters, and hundreds of public broadcasting stations that produce and distribute local news eligible for the next round of PPP loans. Public radio stations like those run by the University of Washington and Washington State University also now are eligible.
The new relief bill sets aside $284.5 billion for the PPP program nationwide. Businesses that received loans during the first round and that qualify under new revenue guidelines may apply for a second one.
“During this pandemic, local newspapers and broadcasters must continue to communicate vital COVID health data, including lifesaving information about public health guidance, the vaccines, and vaccine distribution,” Cantwell said. “Local news is essential. It makes our communities — and our country — stronger by asking important questions, providing accurate facts, and countering misinformation and disinformation.”
As of this writing on Thursday, President Donald Trump hasn’t signed the bill. He has some legitimate complaints about the number of pet projects crammed into what should have been a narrowly focused relief package. It’s old-school, pork-barrel spending at its worst. Nevertheless, it’s the bill that made it to his desk, and he should sign it. America has waited too long for this help.
The local free press has been among the hardest hit industries during the pandemic. Governors didn’t shut them down like they did restaurants and other service industries. The press’ crisis was more subtle, an acceleration of long-term industry trends that pushed many publishers to enact drastic cuts or shut down entirely.
Watching from inside the industry, there was dissonance to it all. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times and all that. The hero gets his head cut off in the end.
Readers returned to their local newspapers during the pandemic in huge numbers. Online subscriptions jumped 50% this year. Those readers wanted to know what effect the coronavirus was having in their community, not just the top-down national reporting in which a call to a diner in some random small town was enough to appease editors’ demands for local color.
That boost in digital subscriptions wasn’t enough to offset the precipitous drop in advertising revenue. When businesses started to suffer during the pandemic, one of the first things they cut was their advertising budget. The bipartisan Local Journalism Sustainability Act might have helped, but it stalled in committee.
Meanwhile, the tech behemoths that control online advertising continue to exploit local news producers to pad their profits.
All of which forced more than 60 local newsrooms to close in 2020. Many leave behind news deserts where local residents no longer have a reliable source for reporting about what their city council, school board and community are getting up to. The lucky communities kept their newspapers, but lost reporters. Publishers have laid off, furloughed or cut the hours for thousands of journalists this year as federal aid dried up.
“Local newspapers in print and digital are the backbone of our democracy and vibrant local communities,” said The Seattle Times’ Publisher Frank Blethen. “The support in CARES2 will prevent a tsunami of lost local journalism jobs and the creation of more ghost newspapers and news deserts. Sen. Cantwell is a true champion of the free press and has provided critical leadership which will help us save our local free press.”
Making more news organizations eligible for the next round of PPP loans won’t save the local free press, but it will supply a lifeline that helps publishers stay afloat for a while longer. When the pandemic wanes and the economy rebounds, those publishers, their communities and government must collaborate to find a sustainable path forward for the free press.
Readers with time on their hands over the holidays can get a jump start by sending their representatives and senators a thank-you note for remembering local news in the new relief bill and urging them to take up sustainable reforms to reinvigorate the press for years to come.