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U.S. senators say public support for local news needed in wake of pandemic 

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., arrives for a meeting to discuss the coronavirus relief bill on Capitol Hill, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik

Monitor staff
Published: 4/9/2020 3:34:24 PM

A group of U.S. senators, including New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, wants the next round of federal stimulus funds related to the COVID-19 pandemic to contain financial support for local journalism.

“Reliable local news and information has been critically important during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet it has become more scarce,” wrote 19 senators, all Democrats but one. “Any future stimulus package must contain funding to support this important industry at such a critical time.”

The sudden loss of advertising from businesses that are reeling from the effects of the virus has led to cuts at newspapers across the country.

“As many communities have shut down local restaurants, entertainment venues, and other non-essential businesses in an attempt to ‘flatten the curve,’ local papers and local broadcasters have lost even more of the advertising revenue they rely on from these businesses,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Communities across the country have seen the further decimation of this important industry as local publications have stopped printing and laid off staff in the last few weeks.”

The financial hit has struck at news outlets large and small. The Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, announced staff furloughs of up to eight weeks and switched to a twice-weekly print edition after it lost $1 million in advertising due to coronavirus, the Guardian reported in an article about the “extinction-level” threat facing newspapers.

Gannett, the largest local newspaper owner in the U.S., said it would furlough staff across most of its newsrooms for one week each month, which one newspaper union described as a 25% pay cut, the Guardian reported.

Newspapers of New England, which owns the Concord Monitor, Valley News, and Monadnock Ledger Transcript, was not immune, announcing at the end of March staff reductions and pay cuts for managers.

The new financial pressures come at a time when a hunger for reliable local news is fueling a growth in readership. Much of that growth is happening online, where news publications, including the Monitor, have taken down their paywalls to better inform communities about the public health crisis.

In addition to Shaheen, the senators signing the letter in support of public funding for local news were Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Robert Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey; Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed of Rhode Island; Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Patty Murray of Washington; Mazie Hirono of Hawaii; Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Ron Wyden of Oregon; Tom Udall of New Mexico; Ed Markey of Massachusetts; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Sen. Angus King from Maine, an independent, signed along with 18 Democrats.

Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire’s other senator, did not sign the letter but said she supports its aims.

“Senator Hassan is very supportive of this request and the work of local journalists that is particularly essential during this pandemic,” Hassan spokesperson Laura Epstein said.

Shaheen emphasized that now more than ever local newsrooms need the public’s help.

“During this crisis, journalists have been diligently serving their communities by delivering timely, and potentially life-saving information,” Shaheen said in a statement. “That’s why Congress should assist local news sources in future COVID-19 relief legislation so that these important institutions can stay financially afloat and survive this crisis.” 

The current public health crisis has made the role of local news even more critical, the senators said in their letter.

“Local journalism has been providing communities answers to critical questions, including information on where to get locally tested, hospital capacity, road closures, essential business hours of operation, and shelter-in-place orders,” they wrote. “During this unprecedented public health crisis, people need to have access to their trusted local news outlets for this reliable and sometimes life-saving information.”

The first $2.2 trillion stimulus package contained $75 million earmarked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes funds to public radio and public television stations around the country. The money was targeted to small and rural stations to help them “maintain programming and services and preserve small and rural stations threatened by declines in non-Federal revenue,” the Washington Post reported.

Any new funding could be used to more broadly support local news across the country, the senators said.

“Local news plays an indispensable role in American civic life as a trusted source for critical information, a watchdog for government and corporate accountability, and a building block of social cohesion,” the letter read. “Thousands of communities across the country turn to local news for information on governance, elections, education, health, and numerous issues specific to their cities, towns, and neighborhoods.”

Some newspapers, like the Monitor, have made a direct plea for help from the community.

This week the Monitor launched a fund where readers, subscribers and supporters could make tax-deductible  don ations through the Local News Fund. A link to donate can be found at concordmonitor.com.

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