We’re already several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and any way you look at it, the public health, social, and economic impact of the virus’s spread has been devastating. With no obvious end in sight, it’s clear that more pain — both in the near- and long-term — is sure to follow. And yet, despite efforts by the federal government to provide relief to struggling industries, one of the hardest hit and most important pillars of our communities hasn’t received the support it deserves: local news outlets. We must take action to reverse this trend, or risk losing important investigative journalism and local press coverage in America's small, rural communities.
Why exactly has the coronavirus been so uniquely devastating for local news? As thousands of businesses across the nation have been forced to cut operating expenses or close, the advertising revenue that these news organizations depend on has dried up. This has led to an endless stream of layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts for journalists and news workers in virtually every state. With individual state plans to reopen local economies continuing to face obstacles and setbacks, it’s not clear that much-needed ad revenue will rebound any time soon.
This has the makings of a disaster that could cripple our communities long after the pandemic ends. Americans have always relied on local news to provide them with timely, accurate reporting on the important issues that are closest to home, not least in times of unprecedented crisis like the one we now face.
Our founders recognized as much when they enshrined protections for a strong free press in the Constitution. We’ve seen the commitment local journalists bring to this role, as local news organizations continue to churn out daily reporting on life-saving public health info on COVID-19 in their regions. Despite facing existential financial threats, many of these outlets are even making their COVID-19 coverage free to all readers as a public service.
Local news outlets are the quintessential small business — they are relentlessly in tune with the needs and developments of their communities, and they employ hundreds or thousands of local residents who help power their economy. If these jobs disappear, they may never return. As Congress weighs plans to provide more emergency relief for American workers, Republicans and Democrats must come together in an effort to save jobs and save the news.
Make no mistake, the situation is grave. But there is still time to save local news. In May, a bipartisan group of senators introduced SB 3718, which would expand access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to local news outlets owned by large businesses, which have previously been blocked from accessing the PPP. Local news outlets are exactly the kind of small business the PPP was created to help, and it’s time to ensure they can all uniformly make use of its benefits. Other members of Congress must step forward to join this growing coalition.
A fraction of newspapers have been fortunate enough to meet the stringent requirements of the PPP as currently constructed, and it has allowed them to continue the valuable work they have long done. These include stories like the New Hampshire Union Leader detailing how scammers have defrauded New Hampshire’s unemployment insurance system to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or the Chicago Sun-Times shining a light on how an Illinois nursing home attempted to expel a resident after family members complained the facility wasn’t taking sufficient precautions against COVID-19. And then there’s the Seattle Times’ dogged investigation into the faulty analysis and lax oversight behind the launch of the Boeing 737 MAX, which resulted in two fatal crashes of the airliner model in 2018 and 2019.
Without this kind of watchdog investigative reporting, countless important stories will not make it into the public eye. News outlets across the country are doing similarly important work, but without access to the PPP or any other kind of support, they may not survive the pandemic.
We cannot afford to let the local news industry collapse, or we will feel the effects for years to come. Most alarmingly, we will lose the valuable local perspectives that these outlets provide, only to see their coverage replaced by huge national news organizations that are increasingly distant — both physically and culturally — from many of our local communities.
The scale and impact of the crisis is clear, as is the need to act. It’s time for Congress and the administration to come together to save the news for all Americans. At the end of the day, this issue is nonpartisan and essential — it’s about providing the necessary relief to save critical jobs and the local news industry for the good of our nation.
Bradley A. Blakeman was a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004. A principal of the 1600 Group, a strategic communications firm, he is an adjunct professor of public policy and international affairs at Georgetown University and a frequent guest on Fox News and Fox Business.