Tuesday, June 2, 2020
June 2, 2020

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Jayne: Survival of local news vital to all

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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 Businesses that have been forced to shutter have — understandably — withdrawn advertising, creating a trickle-down effect that is washing over media outlets.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.

But we also have provided dozens if not hundreds of stories about local people coping with the outbreak, about teachers and students, about first responders and health care workers, about businesses and displaced employees. Those stories cannot be found elsewhere, and they are essential to a sense of connectedness with our community.

Maybe you think that is important; maybe you don’t. As conservative columnist Cal Thomas argues: “Among the solutions would be for the major media to address the perceived bias by including more conservatives and serious religious people on their staffs as part of ‘diversity’ campaigns. No industry that ignores the concerns of large numbers of the public can long endure.”

That seems like a specious argument. A vast majority of media outlets are not “major,” although public perception of the media is driven by what people see from the big outlets. And it is not only wrong but illegal to consider an applicant’s political or religious affiliation when hiring, say, an education reporter.

Media outlets, specifically local newspapers, are not the only ones hit hard by the coronavirus. Restaurants will close; shops will never reopen; jobs are being lost, many of them never to return. But they are the only ones specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution as essential to democracy. It’s right there in the First Amendment.

Because of that, Sullivan and others have recommended directing federal stimulus money to media outlets suffering from a drop in revenue. Facebook has committed $25 million in emergency grants to local news outlets and $75 million in marketing help. The Seattle Times has written a thoughtful editorial about the need for Congress to revisit a law that allows companies such as Facebook and Google to profit from local news stories without the producers of those stories sharing in the revenue.

As Joshua Benton of the Nieman Lab explains, “Local newspapers are basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies.”

In other words, while I have a dog in the fight, so do you.

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