Local news is good for our health

A stack of newspapers. Photo by Jon S. on Flickr.

Anyone who reads the Cleveland Plain Dealer regularly knows its reporters have the COVID-19 outbreak surrounded — from instructions for making face masks to how the pandemic is affecting Clevelanders experiencing homelessness.

They are producing excellent content that helps readers understand the pandemic, protect ourselves and stay connected to our community. They’re also providing a service that experts monitoring public health depend on — which makes last week’s news all the more crushing.

On April 3, Advance Publications, the company that owns the Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com, laid off 22 newsroom staff, including every Black woman, leaving behind a newsroom that’s far whiter than the region they cover. Today, only 77 journalists work at the Plain Dealer and its nonunion digital partner, Cleveland.com.

At its peak around the 1990s or early 2000s, the Plain Dealer News Guild had about 350 members. Only 14 union members remain in the newsroom — and Advance leadership has barred them all from covering stories in Cuyahoga and Summit Counties, a move the Guild says “can only be interpreted as a way to punish people for belonging to a union.” Plain Dealer Editor Tim Warsinskey attributed the cuts to “ongoing financial challenges in the newspaper business,” but Advance just spent $730 million to acquire the Ironman triathlon series.

The coronavirus crisis highlights the importance of many professions we take for granted. The Plain Dealer journalists who just lost their jobs are the same workers Gov. Mike DeWine considers “essential” enough that the “stay at home order” doesn’t apply to them.

Last year, Policy Matters chronicled the decline of Ohio’s newspaper industry. We documented the many reasons newspapers make communities stronger — from increasing voter turnout to improving government efficiency to helping experts monitor public health trends. Epidemiologists who track disease outbreaks rely on local news to raise flags

HealthMap tracks the spread of disease in real time using “nontraditional data sources” like local news and social media posts. Local newspapers helped HealthMap researchers track the H1N1 influenza, or “swine flu” pandemic of 2009. In 2016 and 2017, a local newspaper helped researchers identify the root causes of a mumps outbreak in Arkansas.

With this in mind, COVID-19’s toll on the local newspaper industry is even crueler. A dozen newspaper executives told Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab that “daily publishers will lose between 30 and 50% of their total revenue” this month. This on top of the industry’s long, steep decline.

Since 2006, American newspapers have lost more than 70% of their ad revenue as businesses flocked to Facebook, Google and other digital platforms. As newspapers struggled to adjust, hedge funds and private equity firms gobbled up newspaper companies, slashing staff and consolidating operations in an effort to wring out every last bit of profit.

Gannett, which after a mega-merger now owns the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and about 60 other Ohio papers, announced staff furloughs. The company is cutting staff pay and reporting capacity by 25%. 

With local businesses like restaurants shutting down, alternative newspapers have lost their major source of ad revenue. Across the country, alt weeklies are hanging by a thread. Cleveland’s spunky alt weekly, the Cleveland Scene, laid off five staffers last month.

Public health experts say local newspapers are necessary for their work. State and federal policymakers say journalists provide “essential services.” Yet the federal COVID-19 relief bills didn’t do nearly enough to support local news.

The third stimulus bill, the $2 trillion CARES Act, earmarked $75 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports public radio and television. That’s a start, but far less than the $300 million originally proposed, and just a drop in the bucket compared to total spending.

Advocates for local news say the federal government can and should do far more. Some want the federal government to keep communities informed and support local newspapers by spending $500 million on public health ads through local media. The Canadian government will spend most of its $30-million COVID-19 awareness advertising campaign through local newsrooms.

Long before the crisis, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio used city advertising money to support community and ethnic news outlets. Others aim even higher. Free Press says journalism needs $5 billion in emergency funds immediately. That can double funds for public media, bolster daily and weekly newspapers, and help news organizations develop innovative new practices.

Policy Matters has called on Ohio lawmakers to increase support for public broadcasting and to follow New Jersey’s lead and create a state-funded body to support journalism. We’ve endorsed plans to tax Facebook and Google and use the revenue to fund journalism.

It’s clear local news outlets across the nation and the communities they serve need help now. It’s a national emergency that requires a national response. In the middle of a pandemic when journalists are risking their lives to bring us the news, the least our leaders can do is make sure they can keep doing it when the crisis passes.

Editor’s Note: Unlike traditional media, the Ohio Capital Journal is a nonprofit newsroom that does not rely on advertising. In fact, we are free to readers, free of advertising, free of paywalls, and our content is available to all other media for free republication with proper attribution. The Ohio Capital Journal is dedicated to supporting, lifting up and complementing local community journalism across Ohio.