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In states across the country, governors who are ordering people to shelter in place as part of the response to the coronavirus outbreak have recognized that journalists working for newspapers, community radio stations, and other media outlets provide essential services in a time of immense uncertainty.
As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says, “There’s never been a more important time for New Yorkers to receive accurate, real time information & the role of the media has never been more essential.”
Newspapers, in particular, are having a hard time surviving the crisis. In my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, the venerable alternative weekly newspaper Isthmus announced on Thursday—after producing an issue packed with articles about the community’s response to the crisis—that it could not keep publishing.
In an online announcement, “We are heartbroken to share this news,” explained, “Over the past few weeks we have been trying to cover the turmoil and grief that COVID-19 has caused our Madison community. Today, we unfortunately need to share our own story. We have decided that if there is any chance of seeing life on the other side of this storm, Isthmus must go dark for an undetermined amount of time.”
The 44-year-old publication is not alone in going dark—or, at the least, in dialing back dramatically. In California, two alternative weeklies—the Sacramento News & Review and the Chico News & Review—laid off staff and suspended print publishing, as did an associated publication in Nevada, the Reno News & Review. One of the country’s leading alternative publications, Seattle’s The Stranger, laid off 18 staffers and suspended print publication.
The list goes on. Alternative weeklies, many of which have played a vital role in advancing progressive ideas at the local, state, and national levels, are particularly threatened in this moment. “We have spent countless hours trying to figure a way through this. We have looked at every creative thing we could do and talked to as many trusted advisers as possible,” explained the Isthmus announcement. “But in the end, we can’t find a way. Isthmus financially depends on people coming together for concerts, food, drink, lectures, movies and more. And when it all goes away at once, we are left without options.”
Doyle Murphy, the editor-in-chief of the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, Missouri, where most of the staff has been laid off, wrote, “We could see it happening, but the speed has been stunning. One day, you’re a profitable newspaper, doing better every year; the next, almost all of your ad revenue is wiped out with no clear sign of when it will return.”
Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, has been pulling together many of the reports of what’s happening to journalism, writing a daunting story Friday headlined: “‘Total annihilation’: Coronavirus may just be the end for many alt-weeklies.”
But this will extend quickly beyond alternative weeklies. “The possibility of newspapers closing is incredibly worrisome right now, especially because the information we need around the coronavirus are things at the local and municipal level,” Mike Rispoli, the director of the not-for-profit local news advocacy group News Voices told The Guardian this week.
He’s right. So is Marty Baron, The Washington Post’s editor, when he talks about journalism “that is at the heart of our democracy and that is, now, vital to public health.” The Post and many other publications have dropped paywalls because, as Baron says, “the health crisis is so urgent and is likely to spare no one.” The Post is a local and national publication with a lot of resources. (It’s owned by Jeff Bezos.) But not all local papers have those resources, and that’s a serious issue in this moment and for the future.
A decade ago, Robert McChesney and I wrote, in our book The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books), about the declining fortunes of the American media outlets that maintain substantial newsrooms in cities across this country. Throughout the relatively prosperous 2010s, they continued to struggle. A New York Times headline in 2019 read, “More Than 1 in 5 U.S. Papers Has Closed. This Is the Result: Readers across the country told us how they were affected by the decline of local news: ‘Our community does not know itself.’” Another Times headline the same year read, “How the Collapse of Local News Is Causing a ‘National Crisis’: The loss of local news coverage in much of the United States has frayed communities and left many Americans woefully uninformed, according to a new report.”
An existing crisis for journalism—and the public at large—has been amplified. Without revenues, more layoffs will occur and more papers will close—liberal and conservative papers, beloved and not-so-beloved papers. And it will not stop with newspapers. This crisis does not choose sides or platforms.
McChesney and I have argued for years that there are better models for funding journalism in the 21st century—and in the weeks to come we’ll need to discuss them. But the threat is so real at this point, and it has the potential to become so much more urgent in the weeks to come, that it’s time to take immediate action to prevent local news deserts from opening up at a time when people need all the local news that can get. John Stanton and the Save Journalism Project put it best on Thursday: “This is a wake up call to #SaveJournalism.”
If you can, buy a daily newspaper subscription in your community and help sustain journalism online and in print. If you want to support an alternative weekly that does not use a subscription model, give a donation in response to the calls from great papers such as the Chicago Reader. And don’t forget about the vital work done by public and community radio stations, which rely on listener support.
This week, I appeared on a new two-hour program on KPFA in the San Francisco Bay Area. Developed by two of the finest broadcasters I know, Kris Welch and Mitch Jeserich, the show is having the moderators and guests take questions from people who are under orders to “shelter in place.” They’ve been talking about “Coronavirus and Human Morality,” “Coronavirus and Food Security,” and “Government Response to the Coronavirus.” The phone lines were full, and the discussions were deep, smart, and necessary. It was all about sharing news and ideas, realism, and a measure of hope—exactly what we need now.
“Whether we are doing everything right will be judged by history,” says KPFA’s Jeserich, “but right now there’s a feeling that we have to do everything we can do.”
I asked him how the station is pulling the programs together. He said he gets up early, rides an almost empty subway to the station, and works with Welch and a skeleton crew to keep the lines of communication open. “This is when radio matters, this is when the news matters,” he told me. Indeed, this is when the news is essential.