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Democratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus

Democratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus
© Greg Nash

More than a dozen senators are calling for any future stimulus package addressing the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus to include funding for local journalism, saying that communities across the U.S. are at risk of losing their source of news because of the pandemic. 

"Local news is in a state of crisis that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic," the senators wrote in a letter sent to the upper chamber's leadership on Wednesday.

The letter was signed by 18 Democratic senators, including Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDemocrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill House unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants Democrats reintroduce bill to create 'millionaires surtax' MORE (Minn.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownDemocrats reintroduce bill to create 'millionaires surtax' Cryptocurrency industry lobbies Washington for 'regulatory clarity' Biden 'allies' painting him into a corner MORE (Ohio) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinIn Congress, what goes on behind closed doors? Jayapal to Dems: Ditch bipartisanship, go it alone on infrastructure Harris discusses voting rights with advocates in South Carolina MORE (W.Va.), as well as Independent Sen. Angus KingAngus KingProgressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema Senior Biden cyber nominees sail through Senate hearing Pentagon chief: Military has already started 'over-the-horizon' operations in Afghanistan MORE (Maine). 

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The letter notes many of the struggles the news industry has felt over the last two decades as big tech platforms swallow up a majority of the ad revenue that was a key source of profit during the print age. Newsroom employment has significantly decreased and about 1,800 local newspapers have ceased their operations since 2004, according to a University of North Carolina report.

The COVID-19 outbreak has made those problems worse, as many local restaurants, entertainment venues and other nonessential businesses shut down to help slow the spread of the disease. The closures caused a rapid scaling back of ad spending, which has already led dozens of newspapers and alternative weeklies to announce pay cuts and furloughs. 

Gannett, one of the nation's largest newspaper chains, announced furloughs and pay cuts across the company due to the financial hit it is experiencing. The move will force staffers to take one week of unpaid leave for the next three months. 

The senators wrote that these layoffs and pay cuts are taking place even as the news outlets provide answers to "critical questions" about the pandemic. 

"The current public health crisis has made the already vital role of local news even more critical," the senators wrote, noting that local news sources have provided answers to critical questions about business and school closures, as well as details about where testing is available. 

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They also highlight the prevalence of misinformation at this time and the need for credible news sources. 

The senators call for any new stimulus package to include a provision that is "tailored to benefit aid recipients who make a long-term commitment to high quality local news."

The letter is addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Jayapal to Dems: Ditch bipartisanship, go it alone on infrastructure The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Biden's European trip MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerIn Congress, what goes on behind closed doors? Senate Judiciary begins investigation into DOJ lawmaker subpoenas America needs a stable Israeli government MORE (D-N.Y.), Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race MORE (R-Ala.) and Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyBipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua Biden budget expands government's role in economy House narrowly approves .9B Capitol security bill after 'squad' drama MORE (D-Vt.).

President TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE last month signed a $2 trillion economic relief package aimed at helping American workers and small businesses impacted by the pandemic.

David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance, an industry group that includes about 2,000 media organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere, told The Hill that small business provisions could prove to be useful for many publishers and help them retain staff.

“We certainly appreciate the Senators' full throated support for local journalism,” Chavern said after the letter’s release. “Quality local journalism is what we are all depending on right now. “

The alliance is in talks with lawmakers and media outlets about ways to support local news. One idea being discussed is a government advertising program that promotes health information on local news sites, Chavern added.

Updated 3:07 p.m.