The lifeline thrown to America’s imperiled newspapers and broadcast stations in the COVID-19 relief funding Congress approved last week is an important milestone on a long road. Like the inclusion of news outlets in the early Paycheck Protection Program loans, expanded eligibility in the new bill shows recognition that local journalism is critical for a functioning American society and endangered by market forces run amok.
Government intervention is a necessary solution here, starting with the availability of bailout money. That badly needed help is coming thanks to the ardent advocacy of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and allies in Congress who voice the urgency of rebuilding a robust independent press.
As Cantwell said on the Senate floor in April, “We need the media — the local, small media — to help us continue to communicate. After all, the basis of a democracy is about truth and transparency, and they are helping to build a community of truth and transparency. We need to help them during this crisis.”
The problem is acute with “news deserts” covering vast swaths of America as vital community newspapers have gone under. The hollowing out of corporate-owned newsrooms is another way local governments escape journalistic scrutiny, leaving communities with too few shared connections. There is a grim correlation between statistics inside and outside the media about its long-running decay. A University of North Carolina analysis published in June found that from 2004-19, as newspaper circulation was dropping from 122 million to 68 million — a 44% drop — overall newsroom employment dropped by just over half.
Addressing the economic trauma dealt by the pandemic can assist newsrooms through the coming months — once Congress deals with President Donald Trump’s last-minute interjections.
The journalism industry’s long-running financial woes will require a sustained focus by Congress and President-elect Joe Biden. The roots of the problem run deep and are intertwined with Big Tech. The wild-west internet and its unfair, lopsided advertising model created information titans Google and Facebook, at the expense of newsrooms across the country. And the mass consolidation of independent publications into corporate-owned chains and hedge funds has eviscerated local stewardship.
The PPP money for newspapers is an investment that must be nurtured and expanded, lest it become money cast into the void. Now that Congress has stepped up to address the immediate crisis, more intervention must follow to shore up the Fourth Estate, including addressing the unfair advantages of Facebook and Google.
Because The Seattle Times was among nearly 2,800 newspaper companies nationally aided by the first round of PPP loans, the newsroom avoided cuts to survive the economic downturn set off by the pandemic.
“It’s one of the reasons we were able to get through without newsroom layoffs this year,” Times company President and Chief Financial Officer Alan Fisco said.
Under the different eligibility requirements set for the new round of PPP loans, Times-owned newspapers in Walla Walla and Yakima will be able to apply for aid and minimize budget cuts.
Bipartisan groups in each chamber of Congress showed up to back local newspaper rescue funding through this pandemic year. Bills to expand PPP funding to more news organizations were introduced in May by Cantwell in the Senate and in the House by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. The bills drew dozens of co-sponsors, from Washington’s Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat, to Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans.
Such broad-based support will be needed to turn this short-term fix into help for journalism for the long haul. The pandemic has made clear how much America needs credible information from trusted sources to be consistently available throughout the nation. Congress must continue its good work to help heal the economic wounds the industry has suffered.