As mentioned before, I have a dog in this fight.
The decadeslong decline of local media has been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. Businesses that have been forced to shutter have — understandably — withdrawn advertising, creating a trickle-down effect that is washing over media outlets. At a time when more people are seeking out local news — online traffic at Columbian.com has roughly doubled — news providers face an existential threat.
Penny Abernathy, the Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina, predicts that a swath of local newspapers and websites will close. “I think there will be hundreds, not dozens,” she told The Guardian. “An extinction-level event will probably hit the smaller ones really hard, as well as the ones that are part of the huge chains.”
The Columbian is neither. We are not large, but we aren’t small. And we have had local ownership for more than a century, rather than selling out to some hedge fund that strips staffing and boosts profit margins to appease shareholders. That scenario has played out across the country over the past two decades or so, with newsroom staffs being slashed and nearly 2,000 local papers stopping the press — permanently.
“When local news fades, bad things happen,” Margaret Sullivan, media reporter for The Washington Post, said in a recent interview with The Seattle Times. “Citizens become less politically engaged. Municipal costs rise. Voting becomes more polarized. So there is a real cost to our democracy. And there’s something harder to pin down. Local news helps us feel connected within our communities; it knits us together.”
Those ties have been witnessed over the past several weeks. The Columbian has provided daily updates from the health department about the local impact of COVID-19. Those you can find for yourself at the Clark County Public Health website.