It's time to save the news business. Like, right now.
At this still-early stage of the coronavirus crisis, the importance of good information — distributed widely and to the right people — should be self-evident. The best news organizations have helped their audiences understand and prepare for the "social distancing" requirements that state and local governments have implemented in recent days, and they have done so with remarkable nimbleness during a time of rapidly shifting conditions. Journalists have been on the front lines, holding the feet of elected officials, including President Trump, to the fire. They are beginning to bear witness to the extraordinary grief we will be sharing over the next weeks and months. And many reporters are exposing themselves to danger, venturing out into the community to cover the stories that need to be told.
It is also clear that the worst organizations — the ones apparently dedicated more to propaganda than to news — can pose a danger to their audiences. There is almost certainly a straight line between the well-documented efforts of Fox News to downplay the risks of COVID-19 and the unwillingness of many rank-and-file Republicans to grapple with the enormity of the challenge. Fox hosts have done a reversal on the topic in recent days, thank goodness, but their weeks of skepticism may end up endangering many members of the network's audience.
The pandemic comes at a moment of crisis for the news industry. The New York Times and The Washington Post may be flying high, but local and regional newspapers that reach community audiences were already on life support, shedding staff and reducing coverage. The collapse of the economy will reach into every sector of society and make it extraordinarily difficult for these publications to serve their communities.
Indeed, layoffs are already hitting local media hard. New England Newspapers Inc. on Tuesday announced a one-week furlough of its staffers, silencing its reporters at the precise moment the Massachusetts communities it serves most need to understand what is happening. Many journalists at the Military Times, tracking the virus and its effects on American national security, have reportedly also been furloughed since April 6.
"Earlier today I'd been working to create a spreadsheet to track Navy-related #covid19 cases," Navy Times reporter Courtney Mabeus tweeted on Wednesday. "I worry about the stories that will go untold. The institutions that won't get held to account, the lives endangered as a result."
This is a crisis not just for the newspapers, but for the communities that need the information they provide.
Which means amid all the bailout talk, one of the most important things the federal government should do right now is send a bunch of cash to every local and regional news organization in America — newspapers, community web sites, local radio stations, and any other news provider you can think of — to ensure they can continue serving their communities during the emergency.
And when the crisis is over, it will be time to stop talking about the "business model" for news and start talking about how news organizations provide each community with a reliable source of local information. Surely we will come to understand that news isn't a luxury — and it shouldn't be subject to the pitiless laws of the markets. The first thing most newspapers have done in the face of the crisis is to take down their online paywalls so that Americans can access necessary information about coronavirus quickly and freely.
Think about that. Is there any other product in American life that regularly becomes free when customers need it most?
There are other reasons this pandemic should reveal the need for robust local news reporting. The decline of local newspapers has made it more difficult for medical researchers to track the spread of disease. Losing newspapers means we lose part of our pandemic-fighting infrastructure. We must begin restoring it now.
Congress and the president have a lot on their plates, a lot of fires to put out. Given the antagonistic relationship that often defines the relationship between public officials and the media, it might be natural for them to let this industry slip. But if we want to fight the pandemic — and save American lives in the process — it is essential to rescue local and regional news organizations while there is still something to save.
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