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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Don’t let local news become a victim of coronavirus

Without local journalism, social distancing becomes social isolation. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a cruel blow to local news sources. Never have newspapers and their readers needed each other more.

People can go to a thousand sources for news about coronavirus-related developments in Milan and Brooklyn or to monitor the daily briefings from the White House. But to find out about coronavirus testing at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center or to learn about virus-related bar and restaurant closures in northern Idaho, The Spokesman-Review is the go-to source. In print and online, that’s where readers can find the information they need to guide them through this extraordinary moment.

This newspaper also is telling stories about how people in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho are showing their courage, grace and imagination at this time of acute anxiety. Who would have guessed that Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order would trigger a spike in home gardening east of the Cascades? Who would have expected Churchill’s Steakhouse in Spokane to deliver free meals to its 45 laid-off employees and their families? In the shadow of the pandemic, people are showing their compassion and resilience – and The Spokesman-Review is there to bear witness.

Reporters, editors and photographers are usually reluctant to draw attention to their own work. They’re trained to avoid making themselves a part of their stories. They assume that the importance of a robust local newspaper is evident to everyone.

But that which seems obvious can too easily be taken for granted. According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, 70% of Americans believed their local news sources are doing “very well” or “somewhat well” financially. Only 6% understood the reality: Economically, local news sources are doing “not well at all.”

Employment in the newsrooms of American newspapers declined 45% between 2008 and 2017, a separate Pew study found in 2018. The financial distress is caused by the migration of advertising revenue – traditionally newspapers’ primary source of income – to the internet.

With less money coming in from ad sales, newspapers increasingly rely on their subscribers for financial support. Yet Pew’s 2018 study found that most Americans paid nothing for their local news.

Journalists have responded by working harder and faster. They work longer hours for less to ensure that their newspapers continue to deliver a comprehensive news report to their communities. They do it because it is their calling.

And then came the coronavirus. Entire sectors of the economy are on ice – including many that advertise in local media. Newspapers can’t sell ads for events that have been canceled or for retail outlets that have been closed.

Local news sources across the country are feeling the effects.

The New York Times quoted the publisher of The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, who said that “a hellscape of unforeseen economic events” has eliminated 90% of revenue from ads for events, museums, theaters and other chief sources of income.

The EO Media Group, publisher of the East Oregonian in Pendleton, the Hermiston Herald and 11 other newspapers, announced Wednesday it was laying off 47 employees, nearly one in five, due to the COVID-19 slowdown.

The entire staff of the weekly Sandpoint Reader has been laid off. Journalists for the Adams Publishing Group, including the Idaho Press, are being restricted to 30-hour workweeks, a 25 percent cut in pay.

Congress last week passed a massive stimulus package to soften COVID-19’s economic blow. None of its $2.2 trillion is slated for the news media, though. Nor should it be. An independent, free press as enshrined in the First Amendment would be difficult to maintain if newspapers and other outlets were beholden to elected officials.

The news media needs a bailout, but not from the government. It must come from the people who value and benefit from local news. The easiest way to show your support is simply to subscribe and pay for the coverage that you already read – whether in print or in pixels.

Spokane and the rest of the world will get past the worst of the COVID-19 crisis one day. How soon that happens – and the amount of suffering to be endured in the meantime – depends on an informed, engaged and compassionate citizenry. That, in turn, hinges on coverage by local news sources that have support from their community.

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