As Media Jobs Disappear During COVID-19, It’s Time for More Publicly Funded Journalism

There’s no argument that the coronavirus pandemic has caused the media industry to suffer intense losses and changes, bringing to light a potential need for emergency action to keep news operations across the country afloat. 

The loss of reporters and entire newsrooms as a result of COVID-19 will undoubtedly hurt our democracy. There has already been a rapid loss of local and state-level newsrooms over the last decade, leading to a void in many statehouses where there are little to no journalists holding policymakers accountable. With the current crisis, this could be the reality across all levels of government and at newsrooms of all backgrounds and sizes.

Columbia Journalism Review’s Matthew Ingram writes “Waves of layoffs have become the norm, not just for large chains like Gannett and McClatchy but for smaller papers, and even for digital giants like BuzzFeed and Vox, who at one time were seen as the future of online media. Then along came COVID-19…for many outlets, it will likely become what media analyst Ken Doctor calls “an extinction event.”

[Read More: Facing Diminishing Ad Revenues, Digital Media Outlets Downsize and Consider Consolidation]

COVID-19’s industry-devastating effects are far-reaching and have especially stumped the sports media industry on what to do next. “The media business has never anticipated a world in which no games would be played for an extended period of time,” Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg writes

Although there is speculation games could continue in an apocalyptic fashion, playing in empty stadiums, ESPN has estimated the sudden loss of content “will erase at least $12 billion in revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs.” 

Not all media industries are hurting. “Business and finance coverage is the fastest-growing area of news and information content during the coronavirus era,” Sara Fisher of Axios reports. As consumers lose access to in-person purchasing, demand for online shopping, lifestyle brands and news subscriptions have skyrocketed, according to Fisher. 

But, “For the first time in several years, politics, law and government-related is not the top content category in Parse.ly’s network,” said Fisher, referencing the media and communications data platform.

Does this mean we’ll now see empty White House briefing rooms or future 2020 campaign events with no reporters? Probably not. Legacy outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post will continue to keep the lights on and send their journalists out to gather the most important political coverage.

But what we will lose is the kind of long-term investigative reporting that costs more time and money than covering the day to day of beltway politics. We’ll lose journalists on crucial beats like gender and race politics that aren’t seen as essential by higher-ups in newsrooms. We’ll lose the policy-driven coverage of online outlets like Vox, Slate or CityLab. Young people will lose news that is catered to them, an essential way to bring young people into politics, like Buzzfeed, Teen Vogue and the Outline. 

Most devastatingly, we’ll lose those small newspapers that don’t have the luxury of being located in Washington, DC or New York City; local newsrooms that work to shine a light on and hold accountable our country’s mayors, city planners, state legislatures, courts, businesses, and more. 

Like in any other industry, what’s needed most during the pandemic is an influx of cash to keep employees on payroll and bills paid, or we will continue to see only the most popular outlets survive while all other political coverage falls behind. As Congress continues to pass new relief packages to keep the economy afloat, public funding for journalism needs to be on the table. 

[Related: The News Industry’s Coronavirus Crisis and How to Survive It]

Even before the pandemic, public funding of local and independent media has been a success that should be expanded. Rather than creating what some would fearfully call “state media”, governments can fund journalism while preserving its independence through thoughtful resource allocation. States like New Jersey have used public charities and grant programs to fund media startups and support existing local media outlets. And of course, media groups like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have for a long time received federal funding through grants and direct payments for administrative costs that trickle down to their local subsidiaries.

In many countries, publicly-funded news is already a much larger part of their news media ecosystem. As the Nieman Lab reports: “Canada just devoted nearly $600 million to boost the country’s journalism. Great Britain is redirecting $10 million from the BBC’s budget to local news outlets. Australia is considering taxing platform giants to support quality news.” So it’s clear that public dollars for journalism isn’t some crazy, out-of-the-box idea, but rather an effective policy tool that is utilized around the world.

When we think about what makes a business or industry essential, we think about whether or not it’s something we truly need in extraordinary times such as these. If journalism functions as an avenue for accountability, then it should be a simple truth to say that accountability in government, politics, and the law is needed now more than ever.

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