The Future of News: “Government aid may be the only way to keep the lights on.”

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi, Sarah Ellison, and Elahe Izadi headlined “The cononavirus crisis is devastating the news industry. Many newspapers won’t survive it.”

Two months ago, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Brie Zeltner became consumed by one topic: the coronavirus crisis that would soon sweep into her state.

The veteran health-care journalist chronicled the early reports of illness in nearby states, and then the first cases transmitted within Ohio. She interviewed a local woman who had tested positive; explored the impact of the virus on maternal health; and questioned the state’s shortage of coronavirus tests and the reasons local health departments were pursuing such different strategies to thwart the disease.

Last week, the encroaching crisis took a hit on Zeltner’s own workplace — a financial one. Suffering a dramatic dip in advertising revenue amid the sudden economic downturn, the long-struggling newspaper cut 22 journalists from its payroll. Among them, Zeltner.

“It’s very difficult to watch what is going on in the world right now and be a health reporter,” she said, “and not be able to be out and about covering it.”

A tsunami of layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs and closures has washed over newsrooms across the United States over the past month — a time, ironically, when readership and viewership is surging with consumers in search of reliable information about the virus. . . .

Small businesses of all kinds are hurting everywhere, of course, and this month’s cuts follow more than a decade of shrinkage for the media industry. As readers started to gravitate to online sources, news sites have struggled to claim a piece of a national Web advertising market increasingly dominated by bigger players.

But this frailty had seemed almost manageable — until recent weeks when the coronavirus turned it into an urgent existential threat, striking at local businesses that had been the last pillar of support for many news organizations. . . .

While newspapers — many held by heavily indebted chain owners — have been hit hard, the broader media landscape has pits in it at every turn. Alternative weeklies and city magazines, dependent on ads from restaurants, museums and local attractions, were the first to hang out urgent appeals for reader donations; several have closed, and others are contemplating it. Even local TV stations, the most resilient sector during the media’s troubled years, are hurting from the disappearance of two reliable advertisers — local car dealers and political candidates. . . .

The mounting misfortune has driven some to embrace a formerly unthinkable idea: a government bailout.

Media-business analyst Rick Edmonds of the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization, said some news companies may have to resort to applying for loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal government’s newly created plan for small businesses.

News organizations have long resisted — and have rarely needed — government loans, fearing that any such financial entanglements pose a conflict of interest in reporting about the government. But Edmonds said they may be the only way ailing companies can “keep the lights on” through the crisis months. “Who [besides the federal government] has the means to take this country through the shutdown and see it through to the other side?” he asked. . . .

Small lifelines to news providers have been offered by Facebook and Google. The social-network giant pledged $100 million in grants late last month to ailing news organizations, most of it in the form of ad purchases. Google’s $300 million pledge to news outlets came long before the coronavirus outbreak but is ongoing.

The irony is that these are the very platforms that are often cited as helping to push news companies to the brink before the coronavirus crisis. Google, Facebook and Amazon alone scooped up as much as 70 percent of digital advertising dollars last year, leaving only scraps for smaller players. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

What’s more, Google operates one of the largest automated digital ad-delivery networks, which serves ads to news sites and other websites based on algorithms. Advertisers using these networks often “blacklist” news providers in a crisis, specifying that they do not want their ads to appear next to bleak articles about illness or natural disasters. . . .

Those who remain in depleted newsrooms are left with anxiety about what happens next.

“I wish I knew” what the future holds, said Paul Tash, of the Tampa Bay Times. “What will retailing look like? What will small businesses look like? What will local governments look like? We haven’t begun to imagine how this will all shake out.”

Speak Your Mind