Truth is, local journalism was in serious trouble before anyone heard of COVID-19.
But amid a worldwide shutdown intended to stem the spread of the dangerous virus, the financial struggles of your local media outlet are even more serious now.
With idled businesses pulling back on advertising, newsrooms are responding with a fresh round of layoffs. Many are also furloughing employees, slashing salaries and reducing publication frequency.
The Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization, has been keeping up with the cuts here.
Sadly, all this is happening as readers and viewers need accurate and dependable news coverage more than ever as they attempt to discern fact from fiction during this pandemic.
Of course, painful cutbacks in local newsrooms aren’t anything new.
A Pew Research Center report from April shows the number of American newsroom employees fell 23%, from 114,000 to 88,000, between 2008 and 2019. Just looking at U.S. newspaper newsrooms, the decrease was by more than half – from 71,000 to 35,000.
These numbers don’t consider this year’s coronavirus-related job losses.
The reasons for local journalism’s financial troubles are many, but the major ones are:
- An audience that is increasingly moving online
- An online advertising ecosystem that doesn’t command the amount of revenue traditional ads brought in to support the newsroom sizes of yesteryear.
- An online audience accustomed to tooling around the internet free of charge still getting used to (or rejecting) the idea of paying for news coverage. A 2019 Pew report shows 14% of adults overall – just 9% among those ages 30-49 – report paying for local news.
So how can we fix this?
One answer is a greater reliance on nonprofit journalism. We already see this at work every day at well-known entities like NPR. It survives heavily on private donations and grants – as opposed to the advertising and subscription revenue for-profit media relies on – to keep the news flowing.
Capitol News Illinois is a newer example of nonprofit news in action here in Springfield. Operated by the Illinois Press Foundation, CNI opened an office in the state Capitol press room in January 2019. Its reporters provide news coverage of state government and politics, which is provided free of charge to newspapers throughout Illinois. To date, more than 400 newspapers have carried CNI stories.
CNI’s reporting crew, which includes an intern from UIS’ Public Affairs Reporting program, was a welcomed addition last year to the state Capitol press room, which has become increasingly desolate as media companies eliminate their full-time Capitol correspondents.
Another nonprofit, Report for America, raises money to help pay the salaries of young journalists to produce work on underreported topics and underserved communities in newsrooms throughout the country, including a few in Illinois.
Steven Waldman, president of Report for America, is an obvious backer of nonprofit funding for journalism. In a recent column written for the Poynter Institute, Waldman says the journalism industry would benefit if newsrooms could escape from the massive corporations that own (and severely cut) them and be “replanted” into “more hospitable ground,” such as a locally owned company or a nonprofit organization.
Waldman’s replanting plan includes offering tax incentives for big media chains to donate a local newspaper to a nonprofit, letting nonprofits accept advertising, and allowing readers to treat a newspaper subscription as a tax-deductible donation.
Elsewhere, an interesting non-profit initiative is just getting started in New Jersey.
In 2018, the state legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy approved the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a charity organization that would raise money to financially support “local journalism, promising media startups and other efforts meant to better inform people.”
As noted, nonprofits that support journalism aren’t new, but here’s the twist in New Jersey: State government is pouring in seed money. The state initially approved $5 million for the consortium, but the amount ended up being $2 million. The release of the funds began earlier this year.
Still, the concept – which involves organizations applying for grants to pay for efforts to provide critical information to communities, especially those that are underserved – could become an important piece of the complex puzzle to save local journalism.
Any expansion of a nonprofit model for news will be a challenge. Will tapped-out state governments invest in an industry whose mission it is to hold government accountable? Is there enough philanthropic goodwill toward the press to support the cost of a well-staffed newsroom?
Can we afford to not pursue these answers? The desperate need for high-quality, accurate, clear, even-tempered and unbiased news coverage is greater than ever. These days, it can literally mean the difference between life and death.
If you have questions, feel free to connect with us and request more information!
Jason Piscia, Public Affairs Reporting Director and Assistant Professor, is a 1998 PAR graduate who came to the University of Illinois Springfield following a 21-year career at The State Journal-Register (SJ-R). He was the newspaper’s first-ever online editor, in charge of managing the SJ-R’s website, and was promoted to digital managing editor, directing coverage and overseeing production for both the SJ-R digital and print editions. Under his direction, the SJ-R’s website won numerous awards for excellence from the Illinois Press Association and Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. A native of Peru, Illinois, Piscia holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Illinois State University, where he was a reporter and editor for the student newspaper, The Vidette.