If local news were already on life support, barely breathing, the current coronavirus pandemic has created even worsening health. The prognosis is dire.
So is democracy.
Last week, I listened to a webinar organized by The Aspen Institute concerning the impact of COVID-19, learning again about the worrisome state of local news in our country. One panelist, Steve Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, a national service program that places “emerging journalists” in local newsrooms, said that a crisis had turned into a “catastrophe” due to thousands of layoffs and furloughs generated by the lockdown and its well-documented economic consequences.
The result is “news deserts” characterized by an inadequate, if non-existent coverage of local government and consequently an alarming lack of accountability demanded nationwide of our elected officials.
Civic engagement, typically fueled by information and contrasting opinions in once thriving letters-to- the-editor columns, becomes threatened, if not frighteningly muted.
More than 2,000 newspapers have closed their doors during the past 15 years. Newsroom employment has dropped nearly 50 percent. According to Waldman, the number has declined from 458,000 to 180,000 reporters.
Supported almost entirely over the years by advertising, the print media has lost tons of revenue to social media, which hardly qualify as reliable sources of news. Nonetheless, advertising dollars no longer buttress newspapers as they once did.
A local news outlet, The Star Democrat, too has fallen victim to advertising revenues migrating elsewhere, exacerbated by the pandemic’s effect on store closures. Just two weeks ago, Jim Normandin, president and publisher of APG Media of Chesapeake, announced that the paper would no longer be printed on Tuesdays. Instead, it would be published online.
More than a year ago, The Star Democrat ceased its Monday edition due to the increased cost of newsprint produced in Canada. Trump Administration tariffs were the culprit.
My guess is that The Star Democrat, a critically important part of the informational and cultural infrastructure not just of Talbot County, but the Mid-Shore area, will either become a totally online media outlet, or revert to its former status as a weekly newspaper. Founded in 1799, The Star Democrat became a daily newspaper in August 1974.
In The Aspen Institute webinar, the controversial subject of government funding—not a bailout—of local news media surfaced for discussion. As a former journalist who strongly believes in the fierce independence of print and electronic media, I initially recoiled from this idea.
A panelist stated that her online publication, Chalkbeat, already receives federal grants. In fact, it just received money from the Payroll Protection Program, part of the stimulus package passed by Congress.
Waldman proposed that the federal government consider spending $500 million on public-service health ads through local media. He reasons that the government already spends about $1 billion on public-service ads related to military recruitment and census participation.
Though I would like to be wrong, I don’t think the political will exists for the federal government to support the media industry. I agree, however, that placement of public-service ads is a far cry from a bailout and the insidious ramifications of meddling by the government in the news business.
The nurturing and stimulation of civic engagement by a vibrant media, particularly on the local level, is absolutely necessary to democracy. Elected officials must be held accountable for their stewardship of taxpayer money.
If citizens live in a news desert without information about the decisions made by their councilpersons—or how the decisions were made—then a heavy cloud overhangs the community. It knows little and asks less.
Local news vehicles, whether newspapers or radio and TV stations, are akin to a local utility that provides infrastructure for electricity, gas, water and sewer and, in some cases, cable television. The news flow sustains the health of a local community.
Life in a news void would be unbearable.
And, yes, the media must be pesky and skeptical to be effective. It’s the price of freedom.
Josh Stearn, of the Democracy Fund, wrote: “Local news, done right, helps build community by reflecting the voices, concerns and stories of local people back to each other in ways that build connection and empathy. Traditionally, local news organizations have also served as a key part of the public square where communities debate the issues and ideas facing them.”
The pandemic has affected numerous socioeconomic sectors in serious, disabling ways. The financial and emotional cost has been great. At the same time, our democracy has weakened through the diminution of local news.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.