One of the first things I do each morning is read CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter. As a member of the media—albeit the trade media—I find it terribly disconcerting and depressing to read about all of the furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts, and outright closures that seem to be escalating day by day across the media ecosphere. While this is happening pretty much across the board—due to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting evaporation of advertising revenue—no segment has been harder hit than local news media, especially local newspapers. These publications are always important, to keep communities informed of the local news that is inadequately covered in national channels, or not covered at all. It is especially important as we fight through this pandemic. This trend has spawned the term “local news deserts.”

This is not new to the COVID-19 era, by any means. In 2018, the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media published a report entitled The Expanding News Desert noting, “For residents in thousands of communities across the country—inner-city neighborhoods, affluent suburbs, and rural towns—local newspapers have been the prime, if not sole, source of credible and comprehensive news and information that can affect the quality of their everyday lives. Yet, in the past decade and a half, nearly one in five newspapers has disappeared, and countless others have become shells—or ‘ghosts’—of themselves.” This trend is only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with local news deserts expanding faster than physical deserts in the climate crisis.

The report adds, “In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country—and of grassroots democracy itself—is linked to the vitality of local journalism..”

In very recent example of this decimation occurring in even larger newspaper chains, Sacramento-based McClatchy filed for bankruptcy last week and may be purchased via auction as a result. The company, which has been controlled by the McClatchy family since the time of the California Gold Rush, operates newsrooms in 30 markets, including the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star, the Sacramento Bee, the Charlotte Observer, the (Raleigh) News & Observer, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Initial furloughs and executive compensation cuts have not so far affected journalists, but it’s not certain that will continue. That’s just one example of many.

There are some efforts to get the government to provide assistance to struggling news organizations as part of the COVID-19 assistance packages that are making their way (slowly) through Congress. One such effort was outlined in a letter from Maine Senator Angus King and 18 Democrats in the U.S. Senate, calling for a future stimulus bill aimed at coronavirus relief to include money to support local news organizations. The letter characterized local news organizations as “in a state of crisis” that was only “exacerbated” by the coronavirus pandemic: “Reliable local news and information has been critically important during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet it has become more scarce.”

The Bangor Daily News(Maine) in reporting on this effort, stated: “Print ad revenue is expected to decline by 25% in 2020, according to a forecast from Magna Global. Among counties with at least one confirmed case, 37 percent have lost a local newspaper between 2004 and 2019, according to the Brookings Institute.” The latter study notes, “These [local] outlets have helped to disseminate essential information from state and local government actors, prevent the spread of misinformation, and report important community stories from the effects on the local economy to a food pantry trying to meet a surge in demand as workers lose their jobs and income.”

On the House side, Congressman Tim Ryan, joined by a dozen other Democratic House members, urged House Speaker Pelosi to provide assistance to local media outlets and journalists. According to news reports, “The letter urges the Speaker to include the Protect Local Media Act of 2020 in the next economic stimulus bill, which directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to designate 50% of government advertising to local newspapers, television and radio stations and provides a tax credit for newsroom employees hired between now and December 31, 2020.”

What You Can Do to Help

First and foremost, if your community still has a local news organization, especially a local newspaper, you can subscribe to both the printed and digital versions to support their efforts.

Secondly, contact your Congressional representatives in both the House and Senate to ask for their support in providing emergency funding for news organizations and journalists affected by the accelerated decline these organizations are experiencing as a result of the pandemic.

You can also sign the #SaveLocalNews petition here.

Finally, help us bring increased attention to this issue through your social media feeds and any other channels to which you have access. We have made this article available for free to make it easier to share.

Let’s hope we are able to save at least some of the local news outlets before it is too late. A free and open press is an absolutely vital element of any democracy. Don’t let the virus take that from us as well.