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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 KlobucharJuan Williams: Hypocrisy runs riot in GOP Open-ended antitrust is an innovation killer FBI, DHS and Pentagon officials to testify on Capitol riot MORE (Minn.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownMedicare loophole for screening colonoscopies is fixed — What does this mean for patients? Republican Ohio Senate candidate calls on GOP rep to resign over impeachment vote Sunday shows - Trump's reemergence, COVID-19 vaccines and variants dominate MORE (Ohio) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Murkowski says no decision after Tanden meeting Ocasio-Cortez: wage only 'socialist' to those in 'dystopian capitalist nightmare' MORE (W.Va.), as well as Independent Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSenate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Biden CIA pick pledges to confront China if confirmed, speak 'truth to power' Top cops deflect blame over Capitol attack 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 McConnellJudiciary Committee greenlights Garland's AG nomination This week: Senate takes up coronavirus relief after minimum wage setback Juan Williams: Hypocrisy runs riot in GOP MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerFirst Black secretary of Senate sworn in Republican Ohio Senate candidate calls on GOP rep to resign over impeachment vote The bizarre back story of the filibuster MORE (D-N.Y.), Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyBlack Caucus members lobby Biden to tap Shalanda Young for OMB head On The Money: Senate panels postpone Tanden meetings in negative sign | Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy MORE (R-Ala.) and Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyFirst Black secretary of Senate sworn in Press: The big loser: The Republican Party Senate acquits Trump in 57-43 vote MORE (D-Vt.).

President TrumpDonald TrumpProsecutors focus Trump Organization probe on company's financial officer: report WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year Romney released from hospital after fall over the weekend 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.