Thursday, March 4, 2021
March 4, 2021

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Federal pandemic relief bill’s payroll loans provide lifeline to Washington media outlets

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This week’s COVID-19 relief bill brought a rare bit of good news for the news business, including more than 100 newspapers and broadcast stations in Washington state.

Under COVID stimulus legislation passed by Congress Monday, many media outlets that missed out on so-called Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans earlier this year could now apply, while others that already got a PPP loan may be eligible for another.

The provision, co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, will provide a lifeline for local newspapers and TV and radio stations that have lost much of their advertising revenues during the pandemic.

“Local news has been very, very hard hit and it’s just barely been hanging on,” said Cantwell in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

Examples include two community newspapers owned by The Seattle Times Company — the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and the Yakima Herald-Republic. With combined advertising revenues this year down more than 25% from 2019, both newspapers would face a “significant amount of layoffs” early next year without the second round of PPP loans, said Charles Horton, who oversees both newspapers for The Seattle Times.

“Everything was on the table,” he said.

The second round of PPP loans is open to many media outlets that weren’t eligible for the first round of loans, including outlets owned by out-of-state companies. Among these are The News Tribune in Tacoma, The Olympian and the Bellingham Herald, whose parent company, California-based McClatchy, filed for bankruptcy in February and was sold in September to Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund.

The News Tribune didn’t respond to questions about whether it would apply for a PPP loan under the new program.

Also newly eligible are public broadcasting stations owned by nonprofit or tax-exempt private and public colleges.

The broader eligibility means more than 100 newspapers and TV and radio outlets in Washington can now apply for loans. Nationally, the new rules will affect 2,000 newspapers, 3,384 TV and radio stations, and hundreds of public broadcasters, according to Cantwell’s office.

The Seattle Times Company, which received a $9.9 million PPP loan in April, isn’t eligible for a second loan, said Times company President and Chief Financial Officer Alan Fisco. That’s partly because the paper has more than the 300-employee maximum allowed for second-time borrowers of the loans, which are forgivable if the funds go mainly for payroll.

As subsidiaries of the Times Company, the Walla Walla and Yakima newspapers received some of its earlier PPP loan, but will apply individually for the second round, said Fisco.

Despite the relaxed eligibility requirements, the new program requires that PPP loan proceeds must be used by media outlets to produce or distribute locally focused news or emergency information.

The loans are part of a $284.5 billion program to help small businesses meet payroll and other expenses during the pandemic. In the first loan round last spring, roughly 108,000 small businesses in Washington received $12.5 billion in PPP loans.

Cantwell said the modifications to the PPP program were essential for survival of local media outlets, which have been critical during the pandemic in keeping local communities informed about outbreaks and case counts, public health guidelines, vaccines and other news.

“The COVID pandemic in and of itself proved the value of local news,” Cantwell said, adding that studies show that community members “trust local news… more than the national news sources.”

Yet even before the pandemic, many outlets were losing ad revenue to competition from digital platforms, such as Facebook.

Since 2005, newspapers have lost more than 40,000 newsroom jobs and most states have seen more than half of their newsroom workforce disappear, according to a report Cantwell issued in October.

The pandemic accelerated those losses by hurting many of the businesses that normally buy advertising.

While some larger urban newspapers such as The Seattle Times now get more of their revenue from digital and print subscriptions, many smaller outlets still rely heavily on ad revenues, and have been forced to cut back as those revenues fell during the pandemic.

Cantwell’s report projected the pandemic would lead to a 40% decline in revenue for broadcasters and 7,000 additional layoffs of newsroom employees nationally.

That dilemma was evident at the the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and the Yakima Herald-Republic. Even though readership has risen during the pandemic, both newspapers are still reliant on ad revenues, “and in those markets, advertising has not come back anywhere near pre-pandemic levels,” Horton said.

Lawmakers are still ironing out program details, including when newspapers and other small businesses can begin applying for loans, which will be offered by private lenders and overseen by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

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