We can’t afford to let local news die
In late March, meat-processing giant Smithfield Foods announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at its plant in Sioux Falls. In a few weeks, more than 1,000 cases were tied to the plant. This news story started as a local one before Smithfield (and meat processing plants everywhere) were known as hot spots for spreading the coronavirus.
We only know about the story because of dedicated reporters at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and Minneapolis Star Tribune. They investigated the cases and learned that Smithfield ignored employee concerns about health and safety, instead offering workers cash to continue working in dangerous conditions. Without local reporting, the story might never have come to light.
As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the finances of newsrooms that were already struggling to stay afloat, some have argued that they are beyond saving and should be allowed to drown. It doesn’t have to be this way. It will take vision and focused effort, but we can protect local news and the critical role it plays in communities across the nation.
News organizations certainly have their problems. The business model has been upended over the last decade by the dramatic shift in revenue streams away from news outlets — both in print and digital — toward giant tech platforms like Google and Facebook.
The industry has also been ravaged by a spree of mergers and acquisitions spearheaded by private equity and hedge funds. These decisions have come from the top, not from the frontline journalists who are working hard to provide their communities with reliable news coverage.
Few, if any, of these mega-owners have shown foresight or concern for the long-term health of the industry. In many cases they’ve actively contributed to its decline. Throwing money at this problem — without addressing the most broken elements of the system — is neither sustainable nor desirable. What we need instead is a comprehensive reimagining of what the future of local news looks like.
Any solution must start with bipartisan support for immediate, urgently-needed aid in the next round of federal stimulus funding.
Ultimately, however, it will take more than just a temporary infusion of cash. One option might be long-term public financing for local journalism. For example, the federal government could establish a fund to support newsrooms and prevent layoffs so that journalists can continue to tell the stories of their communities and hold the powerful to account. The fund would reinforce the existence of private-sector journalism for news deserts (areas without robust local news coverage) in all 50 states.
News organizations should have to demonstrate financial need and report on how they used the funding. Recipients should be barred for five years from using the money for golden parachutes or engaging in mergers and acquisitions or leveraged buyouts that result in job losses or pay reductions.
Critically, the fund should ensure recipients remain independent from partisan influence, with guidance on journalistic ethics from organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists. Media organizations that receive public funding like PBS and NPR, while still routinely producing coverage critical of the entire political spectrum, show that this nonpartisan approach to journalism can work.
Skeptics will call these kinds of proposals “unprecedented.” If that’s the strongest criticism that can be made, then I invite the cynics to look at everything going on across our nation and ask if now is truly the time to shackle ourselves to precedent. None of us should feel comfortable imagining a world without a strong, healthy, independent local news sector.
In an era defined by fear and misinformation, local news remains among the media organizations that Americans trust the most. It’s essential for holding local governments and businesses accountable — when a region loses its local news outlets, the risk of corruption increases and local governments get more careless with their borrowing and spending. The loss of local news is even contributing to increased partisanship — a disturbing trend over the past several years. And without local news, investigative reporting into stories like Rep. Chris Collins’ insider trading activities or Rep. Donna Shalala’s violation of the STOCK Act will take a major hit.
There is bipartisan recognition of how grave the stakes are. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), John Kennedy (R-La.), John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) acknowledged as much when they sent a joint letter to Senate leadership stating that local news is “essential for maintaining a well-informed public.” This issue transcends political lines like few others.
If we allow the industry to sink, tens of thousands of American journalists dedicated to keeping their local communities informed will lose their jobs. Transparency, accountability and safety will suffer all across our society.
Our democracy is already reeling in the face of countless other challenges. We cannot add the loss of local news to the list.
Jon Schleuss is the president of The NewsGuild – Communications Workers of America (TNG-CWA).