Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are getting louder in their call for the federal government to provide financial support for local news as the already struggling industry suffers another blow from the coronavirus pandemic’s impact.
On Monday, more than 240 House members signed a letter to President Trump, urging him to direct federal spending to ads in local media and to encourage businesses that receive stimulus funds to spend a portion of that money on the same.
This move is just the latest in a string of efforts by US lawmakers over the last month to address the pandemic’s effects on local news. Even as local news outlets see a surge in readership and viewership, their revenue sources have been decimated. Many local news outlets rely on ad dollars from local businesses and events that have been forced to shut down amid the pandemic.
Since March, thousands of people in the media industry have been laid off, furloughed, or have taken pay cuts as newspaper companies, alt-weeklies, local networks and digital outlets cut costs to make up for shrinking revenue.
Over the weekend, four lawmakers — Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), John Kennedy (R-LA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and John Boozman (R-AR) — urged Senate leaders in a letter to revise the rules to make local newspapers, and radio and television broadcasters eligible for small business assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program.
“Up to several thousand newspapers and hundreds of local radio and television stations across the country were cut out of existing programs by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s affiliation rule, which restricts assistance to companies owned or controlled by larger entities,” the letter said. “Even though these news outlets may be owned by larger groups, they operate independently.”
In order to qualify as a small business, a newspaper or digital outlet must employ 1,000 staffers or fewer. David Chavern, CEO and president of News Media Alliance, told CNN Business that his trade association, which represents about 2,000 news publishers in the US and Canada, has been lobbying for exemptions. His group is advocating for local news outlets that are part of a larger company to qualify.
Earlier this month, 18 Democratic senators and independent Sen. Angus King wrote a letter to Senate leaders that called for any economic stimulus package to include money for local journalism.
“In a pandemic, information is one of the absolute key resources, and we need to be sure it’s still going. I mean, I don’t view this as long-term support for local journalism, but we’re talking about getting through a crisis here,” King told CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” on April 12.
Chavern said the News Media Alliance is working with the National Association of Broadcasters to push for a federal funded advertising program to support local news.
Governments in other countries have enacted similar plans to support the media industry. In March, the Canadian government announced its intention to spend $30 million on an ad campaign for coronavirus awareness.
“To get America moving again and strengthen our communities in the midst of this evolving crisis, we must be creative and use all available tools,” Monday’s letter reads. “Advertising plays an incredible role in local economies, and its importance to the sustainability of local broadcast stations and newspapers cannot be overstated.”
The latest effort was led by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Bill Flores (R-TX), Marc Veasey (D-TX), and Fred Upton (R-MI). In total, 244 lawmakers signed Monday’s letter to the President. The show of support from across the political spectrum shows that the White House’s animus toward the press is not always shared by lawmakers who rely on the local media for coverage.
As these proposals are debated in DC, Chavern said the public can support local news now by buying subscriptions.
“The value of reliable local news has never been clearer,” Chavern said. “If you want that to continue in the future, then consumers need to subscribe and pay to get that content so that it’s there not only through this crisis but for the next one.”
Back in my (brief) newspaper ownership days, media companies were prohibited from getting government-backed loans — for instance, from the U.S. Small Business Administration, even though nearly every non-daily newspaper qualifies by itself as a small business — because of the inherent conflict of interest of a media outlet being given government money. (Other than publishing legal ads, which is simply a purchase of newspaper space, with the government setting the rate.)
It is remarkable that the proponents of this seem to see no conflict of interest at all with having the government lend money to media outlets that are supposed to be covering government. (Conservatives have very little trust in National Public Radio or PBS or their state-level versions for that reason.) Unless, of course, that’s a feature, not a bug — to have media outlets financially beholden to the government they’re supposed to be covering.
I have no good answer for the problems afflicting the news media as a business. But I don’t think government funding is a very good answer.