In response to the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the news industry—forcing tens of thousands of layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts in recent months—the nation's largest labor union for media workers launched a new "Save the News" campaign on Monday and urged Congress to provide relief to an industry that should be considered an essential service in a democracy.
"Americans need access to information about their local communities more than ever, and yet layoffs and furloughs are only increasing as this pandemic continues. Congress needs to act to save the news before it's too late."
—Jon Schleuss, The NewsGuild
The NewsGuild, a sector of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), represents over 24,000 workers in North America. In a statement announcing its new campaign, the union noted that "local news outlets have been damaged for years by tech giants siphoning away advertising revenue and private equity ownership groups hollowing out the industry with extreme cost-cutting measures."
"The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the devastation of the local news industry," the statement continues, acknowledging advertising revenue declines as well as job and wage losses. "At the same time, readers are turning to local news outlets in record numbers in search of accurate, up-to-the-minute information about how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting their communities. Those journalists who remain have been hard at work providing life-saving public health information to readers, with many outlets offering their Covid-19 coverage for free as a public service despite financial strains."
The union's new campaign "will involve a six-figure digital ad campaign, direct lobbying on Capitol Hill, and a new website where—among other things—laid off and furloughed journalists will chronicle the industry's plights," according to the Daily Beast. The new website also details a three-part plan for federal lawmakers to provide relief to local news outlets, calling on Congress to:
- Providing direct grants to workers to subsidize the incomes of employees at local print and online news outlets;
- Expanding access to the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for local news outlets that currently may be ineligible because they are owned by larger companies; and
- Directing federal spending on community outreach advertising to local newspapers to replace lost revenue.
"I am humbled to see so many members of our industry unite under one cause: protecting local journalism," NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss said in a statement. "Americans need access to information about their local communities more than ever, and yet layoffs and furloughs are only increasing as this pandemic continues. Congress needs to act to save the news before it's too late."
Since 2004, the U.S. has lost ~1,800 newspapers, many of them small papers outside major cities. That's why, today, we're launching #SaveTheNews, a historic advocacy campaign making the case for why news must be included in future recovery efforts. https://t.co/puWmWUAYem
— NewsGuild-CWA (@newsguild) May 18, 2020
"The window isn't closed," Schleuss told the Daily Beast. "But it has gotten worse [in just the last month] and it is going to get worse every day."
As the Daily Beast reported:
The campaign, bluntly titled "Save the News," is unlike anything that NewsGuild-CWA has done in decades, officials say. And it puts the union in delicate territory: asking for direct assistance from the very political entities and officials that it covers. Schleuss acknowledged the discomfort that can come when an industry premised on telling other people's stories of suffering now is being forced to chronicle and promote its own. But with newspapers hit hard by slash-and-cut-minded ownership and ad revenues being lost because of the economic downturn caused by the spread of the coronavirus, there are, simply put, few remaining options.
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"It has been a challenge for our industry in marketing ourselves that we aren't telling the stories that what we have done has positively impacted communities," Schleuss said.
Journalist John Nichols wrote for The Nation last week that "the federal government has a long history of providing support for diverse and independent local media, going back to the founding days of the republic—a subject Robert W. McChesney and I explored at length in our 2010 book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again."
"But the current crisis is so extreme and coming on so rapidly," he added, "that it requires immediate attention that draws on existing proposals for sustaining journalism, as well as new ones."
Nichols acknowledged efforts by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the New York Times to track the impacts that the pandemic has had on the news media industry as well as calls from advocacy groups and congressional lawmakers (pdf) for using federal coronavirus relief funds to support local journalism.
"Journalism cannot survive, and certainly not thrive, without resources. And those resources are not coming from a 'free market' that has stalled out," Nichols warned. "There has to be a federal fix, and that means that Congress must include muscular support for journalism in stimulus measures." Among the calls Nichols highlighted was a proposal from Free Press Action, a media reform group with which he and McChesney have long been associated.
Print, broadcast and digital newsrooms are hollowing out as journalists are laid off, furloughed and abandoned. News deserts are developing amid the #COVID19 meltdown. The future of journalism is on the line, and with it the future of democracy.
— John Nichols (@NicholsUprising) May 13, 2020
As Common Dreams reported last week, Free Press Action's proposal, What a Journalism-Recovery Package Should Look Like During the Covid-19 Crisis (pdf), encourages both immediate relief to protect local reporting jobs and longer-term policies that "could create a bridge from this emergency period to a future of sustainable journalism that serves and represents local communities, especially Black and Latinx communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the current crisis and poorly served by dominant media."
According to Nichols: "Two things distinguish Free Press Action's recommendations. First, they focus on sustaining journalism, rather than bailouts for the big media companies—and hedge-fund investors—that were making a mess of things even before the pandemic hit. Second, they bring realism and precision to a discussion that to this point has lacked clarity."
Specifically‚ the advocacy group's proposal says that "Free Press Action does not support measures to treat large newspaper or broadcasting chains as small businesses under recovery efforts such as the Paycheck Protection Program. Such policies put deeper-pocketed interests in competition with smaller businesses that have much less access to legal and banking resources."