WASHINGTON – A coalition of more than 45 organizations and scholars has called on Congress to include vital funding for local news in the next coronavirus stimulus package. In a letter sent today, Free Press Action, PEN America, Common Cause, and other organizations urged the House and Senate leadership to consider local press an “essential service” vital to the nation’s health, prosperity, and recovery.
“COVID-19’s devastating economic impact on local news outlets is threatening their ability to function at all,” the letter to House and Senate leadership reads. “We’re calling on you to include the journalism sector in the congressional assistance packages revitalizing affected industries and sustaining workers across our nation.”
The organizations ask Congress to allocate at least $5 billion to support local journalism in the next stimulus package. Specifically, they ask for support of public and community media in addition to creating an emergency fund to preserve newsrooms and reporting jobs. They also call for public investment to address the civic-information needs of those most impacted by the spread of news deserts across both rural and urban communities.
Since the onset of the national health emergency, more than 60 U.S. news organizations have announced newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures, according to the Poynter Institute. News outlets that serve people of color, low-income households and other marginalized groups that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 may not have sufficient resources to provide robust reporting on the pandemic.
Local press outlets across the country are lowering paywalls, translating coverage, and providing critical information that national outlets cannot replace. In a report published last year, PEN America showed how the shuttering of thousands of local news outlets has led to less reporting on government accountability. In March, Free Press Action published a proposal in the Columbia Journalism Review calling on Congress to allocate emergency funds to put more reporters on the ground in communities, expand noncommercial media and make sure people get the information they need to protect themselves.
“We can’t get through this pandemic—or the next one—without resilient and community-centered media,” said Craig Aaron, president and co-CEO of Free Press Action. “Right now, journalists are essential workers. We need reporters out there reporting, especially in working-class and immigrant communities and communities of color, where COVID-19 has had a devastating impact. If we don’t act now, many vital newsrooms won’t make it through this crisis. We must support those providing the trustworthy and life-saving information our communities need and make significant public investments in the future of news.”
“The nation's local news outlets have proven themselves to be valiant first responders amid this pandemic,” said Thomas O. Melia, PEN America's Washington director. “Yet on top of the health risks individual reporters are taking, the sector as a whole is suffering gravely as the nationwide shutdown has accelerated their loss of revenue. We urge members of Congress to act immediately to provide a lifeline to local reporters and local media to ensure they continue providing their vital service to the American people.”
“Local media is a critical source of news and information for communities, holds our government accountable, and plays an important role in our civic engagement,” said Michael Copps, Common Cause Special Advisor and former FCC Commissioner. “But the health crisis our nation faces combined with the long-term decline in local news has left many communities without adequate sources of trustworthy news on the pandemic and has created a void in civic information. Congress must act now to ensure local news is adequately funded in order to meet the information needs of communities.”