Last year, when things seemed somewhat normal, I wrote an article for Neiman Reports that predicted that with this decade, there could be large swaths of the United States with no daily or weekly newspapers.
I argued the newspapers shuttering would be from a loss of advertising, a decline of local retail, the continued shift toward digital devices and, the final nail in the coffin, the consistent pressure from state and local governments to move public notices out of newspapers.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
At first, it wasn’t apparent what would happen when the quarantine measures started. Then, after nearly all of the local businesses — the ones most apt to support the local newspaper with advertising — shut their doors to combat the virus, print advertising basically went away. A lot of those businesses in our communities are trying to reopen, but some will never return.
With that, thousands of layoffs came and some newspapers have closed for good. In Kentucky alone, four newspapers have closed and two are now online-only, including once-thriving daily newspapers in Morehead and Glasgow. Nationwide, more than 1,800 newspapers — many outside of major cities — have closed since 2004, but many more have closed or merged with larger operations outside of the local communities, and a local news office could never return.
The edges of news deserts are already expanding on maps, with more to come.
Still, many more newspapers, some with fewer than a handful of advertisements each issue, have kept reporting the local news because now, maybe more than ever, you need to know what is going on in your community.
It is local news that breaks down the state and federal COVID-19 numbers and how that applies to you where you are.
That’s why it’s extremely important for everyone to understand, especially in the time of COVID-19, that journalists are essential workers. The reporters who were able to keep their jobs (even those who took pay cuts or furloughs or both) have been on the job this entire time covering the local news where they live.
While a reporter couldn’t be there in person because of social distancing, just this week I just sat through a teleconference of my local school board meeting. At issue was the budget and just when and how the school was going to open back up at the end of the summer. The audio was kind of low and a school official was on the phone with me the next morning making sure I could understand what was said and that I could explain what exactly it would take to open the local school system again.
Honestly, it is mind-numbing; there are four options of dates to open and I don’t know how anyone will pull off the social distancing in a classroom or a bus, but I appreciated her trust in me to report it to a very nervous readership.
“We have to get it right,” she said. “You can explain it and it’ll keep parents from panicking.”
From how your county or city is going to handle the projected budget shortfall with the local economy shutdown for three-plus months, to how schools are going to open in the fall, to exactly how safe is it to move around your community (with a mask, of course), your local newspaper will give you honest and accurate information you can use.
But what if your local newspaper no longer exists?
It wouldn’t be too bold of a prediction to say that without help, many more newspapers across Kentucky and the country will go out of business soon.
There could be hundreds of miles and many a town without a local newspaper. That could mean no one at the meetings keeping local officials on their toes. That could mean no one to do the feature stories about your neighbors. That could mean fewer people running for public office because they aren’t engaged and just don’t know what is going on. Frankly, gossip on your Facebook feed won’t replace what is lost.
While the situation is dire, it is not too late for the government to look at having some sort of rescue plan to reverse the trend. But how can you help?
There may be a big divide between small operations that are traditionally locally owned and large newspaper corporations who own newspapers and are notorious for caring much more for dividends for stockholders than reporters.
The U.S. Senate and Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are considering a recovery package to save the news, but just how can that be done?
While it seems larger corporations are hoping for a large stimulus through public service advertising, the worry is that the corporations would use the funding to help boost profit margins and not keep reporters in the field. Profits are great, but not at the cost of local reporting. There is also the danger that there may not be enough public service advertising to keep reporters at small operations.
Instead, Congress should support a plan from the NewsGuild to support Senate Bill 3718, which would include expanded eligibility for news outlets in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and support grants that would keep reporters and other employees on the job.
I would ask that you call or email your federal legislators to support the NewsGuild’s Save the News initiative. For more information, you can visit SaveTheNews.org.
The newspaper you are holding or the site you are reading may depend greatly on what happens with this bill. No one wants their news to come from three counties over or from the latest post on your local Facebook group of concerned citizens, but the likelihood of that happening is real, if we do not act now.
Ryan Craig is the publisher/editor of the Todd County Standard, a weekly newspaper in Elkton, Ky. He is also the Student Media Adviser for the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky.