April 14, 2020

Newsrooms across the country face a new and possibly critical threat — COVID-19

In a society where both trust in and engagement with the media are at historic lows, newsrooms across the country face a new and possibly critical threat — COVID-19. As local news organizations worry about closing their doors permanently due to the effects of a global pandemic, who will provide communities with relevant updates at a time when the public needs community-level news more than ever?

Answering this question, and several others related to local journalism during this time, was the purpose of “The New York Times Is Great, But Who'll Cover Your Community?” — the latest live event examining the ways technology is influencing how we think about speech. The event was part of the Free Speech Project, a collaborative effort between Arizona State University, New America, Slate, and American University Washington College of Law.

In this virtual webinar, Mi-Ai Parrish, the Sue Clark-Johnson Professor in Media Innovation and Leadership at ASU, sat down with Suzanne Nossel of PEN America and Kyle Pope of the Columbia Journalism Review to discuss the importance of local news.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of us having a robust free press,” Parrish said. “At the same time it’s causing a lot of financial issues and is creating a crisis for those ever-shrinking newsrooms across the country.”

According to a recent Brookings Institution analysis, 57% of counties that have reported cases of COVID-19 lack a daily newspaper and 37% saw local newspapers disappear between 2004 and 2019.

“This represents a crisis for democracy if we allow these local news outlets to wither away,” said Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting open expression in the U.S. and worldwide.

Many communities have acknowledged the importance of local journalism by deeming them essential during shelter-in-place lockdowns, and many news organizations have lifted paywalls in order to provide critical updates to the public in real time as news develops. But many newsrooms are struggling to report the news when no one is paying for it.

“I did not think that PEN America would ever come out in favor of public funding for journalism,” Nossel said. “But it was apparent to us given the size of the (funding) gap that it has to be part of what has to be done to shore up this sector and its essential role in our democracy.”

On the bright side, this issue has led to more momentum in the conversation about funding and supporting local journalism. But what can local news organizations do in the short-term to remedy some of these issues?

“Cooperation across outlets,” Pope said. “This idea that we are all kind of competitive with every other journalistic outlet in the country is not the way to look at the moment that we are in. (We need) the L.A. Times, the local newspaper in Texas, a local newspaper in Illinois and a TV station in Florida all working together on a story that they all have common interest in and sharing in pooling resources.”

The Free Speech Project is a series developed by Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay.