In the Time of Coronavirus, the Decimation of Local News Outlets Could Have Lethal Consequences

Camille Baker March 31, 2020

A resident buys a newspaper at a newsstand in Rome on March 12. Despite extraordinary restrictions in Italy to try to slow the spread of the virus, newspapers have been deemed essential businesses. But in many rural parts of the U.S., even in ordinary times, you couldn’t go out and buy a local newspaper if you wanted to.

So many human fail­ures have brought us to this point, in March 2020, when 803,650 peo­ple world­wide have test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19, 39,033 peo­ple have died (though these fig­ure will be old the moment this arti­cle pub­lish­es), and the rest of us are left won­der­ing whether we are about to watch our loved ones die or end up on ven­ti­la­tors our­selves, drown­ing in our own lungs.

Some of the fail­ures have been recent, pub­lic and obvi­ous. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s fail­ure to speed­i­ly invoke the Defense Pro­duc­tion Act to increase the man­u­fac­ture of essen­tial med­ical sup­plies. Repub­li­cans’ insis­tence on push­ing for­ward with a stim­u­lus bill that bails out cor­po­ra­tions and, in some cas­es, does noth­ing for vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple. Prison and jail offi­cials’ refusal to release incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple in time to pre­vent a dev­as­tat­ing spread of the ill­ness in pris­ons. The Chi­nese government’s sup­pres­sion of infor­ma­tion about the coro­n­avirus in its ear­ly days, when its ini­tial spread could have been stopped.

Oth­er fail­ures, less obvi­ous, have been build­ing for years. Take, for exam­ple, the fact that the bat­tle against the coro­n­avirus in many parts of the U.S. has part­ly been one of mes­sag­ing. Offi­cials have strug­gled to con­vince peo­ple to stay home to stem the virus’ spread. 

At a brief­ing on March 22, New York Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuomo’s voice strained as he admon­ished New York­ers for being too numer­ous and close togeth­er in pub­lic over the weekend. 

I don’t know what I’m say­ing that peo­ple don’t get,” he said. I’m nor­mal­ly accused of being over­ly blunt and direct. And I take that. It’s true. I don’t know what they’re not under­stand­ing. This is not life as usu­al. None of this is life as usu­al. … It has to stop now. This is not a joke. And I am not kidding.”

To under­stand why the pleas of experts and offi­cials seem not to have got­ten through to many peo­ple, we should recall that the virus has arrived in this coun­try at a time when the field of jour­nal­ism has been sig­nif­i­cant­ly erod­ed. There are many forces involved here, but news orga­ni­za­tions are one of the most pow­er­ful tools we have for under­stand­ing and act­ing on the virus.

Con­sid­er that in Italy, France and Spain, where the gov­ern­ments have imposed extra­or­di­nary restric­tions and clo­sures to try to slow the spread of the virus, news­stands have been allowed to stay open, along­side gro­cery stores and phar­ma­cies, because access to news and infor­ma­tion was deemed essen­tial. But in many parts of the U.S., even in ordi­nary times, you couldn’t go out and buy a local news­pa­per if you want­ed to.

In recent decades, local news orga­ni­za­tions, which inves­ti­gate things nation­al out­lets don’t, have been dec­i­mat­ed. Part of the prob­lem is cor­po­rate media con­sol­i­da­tion: As of 2018, just 25 com­pa­nies owned two-thirds of the country’s dai­ly news­pa­pers, accord­ing to a report from PEN Amer­i­ca. These cor­po­ra­tions, dri­ven by a prof­it motive, pro­duce con­tent that is increas­ing­ly homoge­nous, de-pri­or­i­tize local report­ing, and make deci­sions to cut staff or close papers alto­geth­er from dis­tant big-city board­rooms. Since 2004, over 1,800 news­pa­pers in the U.S. have closed. Over 500 of those were in rur­al areas.

The remain­ing media orga­ni­za­tions are clus­tered on the coasts, in New York, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and Los Ange­les. The con­tent they pro­duce is biased toward urban, white, wealthy, male, Eng­lish-speak­ing audi­ences. The effect of all this is that many rur­al areas and many of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in the Unit­ed States do not have access to a rep­re­sen­ta­tive media. 

In the con­text of the coro­n­avirus, this dearth of local media has prob­a­bly already killed peo­ple who did not receive or act on infor­ma­tion about the virus before it was too late.

As local news orga­ni­za­tions across the coun­try have col­lapsed and been sub­sumed, in some cas­es, into right-lean­ing media con­glom­er­ates, some of these bias­es may have inten­si­fied. This, too, has had effects on the coro­n­avirus’ spread. As cas­es began to climb across the coun­try, con­ser­v­a­tive media down­played the threat. And this rip­pled out along polit­i­cal lines: Accord­ing to a poll from ear­ly March, around four in 10 Democ­rats said they thought the coro­n­avirus posed an immi­nent threat, com­pared to about two in 10 Republicans.

Like many jour­nal­ists, I now live in New York, though I grew up in a small town in Rhode Island. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing with friends at home as the virus began to spread across the U.S., I wit­nessed first­hand how many felt dis­trust­ful of media reports from the big cities that warned of the epidemic’s effects hun­dreds of miles away. They also didn’t know where to get accu­rate news. Were the reports, many asked, of cat­a­stro­phes in Italy and New York and Seat­tle to be believed? Where was I get­ting my news? How could they rec­on­cile the mes­sage of impend­ing doom with the real­i­ty out­side their hous­es, which remained basi­cal­ly unchanged? What should they believe―the news­pa­pers, or their own eyes? 

I had heard NYC is on the verge of Italy mea­sures but you know the news,” my friend in sub­ur­ban Rhode Island wrote to me Thurs­day. By Sun­day, the virus had caught up to her; she thought she might have been exposed.

If local news out­lets were still robust near where she lives, per­haps this dis­con­nect would not have happened―and if peo­ple across the coun­try could access cov­er­age that reflect­ed their local expe­ri­ence, so many might not dis­miss warn­ings about the virus as alarmist. A robust local news orga­ni­za­tion could also tai­lor its cov­er­age of the pan­dem­ic to the needs of peo­ple in its area, spread­ing infor­ma­tion about the pres­ence of infec­tions local­ly, where to seek health­care, and near­by resources for con­fronting work clo­sures and impend­ing rent payments.

The addi­tion­al bad news is that the virus may total­ly kill many more local news­pa­pers and alt week­lies, even as online news traf­fic at major news pub­lish­ers has shot up in the last weeks. There have been lay­offs at the Euclid Media Group, which owns the Detroit Metro Times and St. Louis’ River­front Times; the Tam­pa Bay Times; News & Review news­pa­pers in Sacra­men­to, Chico and Reno, Cal­i­for­nia; the Port­land Mer­cury; Mon­terey Coun­ty Week­ly and Isth­mus in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, accord­ing to CNN. (Joshua Ben­ton at Nie­man­Lab has count­ed up more of the alt-week­ly clo­sures.) The Advo­cate, a dai­ly news­pa­per in Louisiana, announced recent­ly that it would fur­lough a tenth of its work­force. C & G News­pa­pers in Michi­gan announced it would pause print­ing. The Rut­land Her­ald and the Times Argus in Ver­mont are lay­ing off staffers and reduc­ing print­ing. Florida’s Tam­pa Bay Times has laid off 11 staffers. Rhode Island’s Prov­i­dence Busi­ness News has sus­pend­ed its print edi­tion. Even the Seat­tle Times, which cov­ered the country’s first coro­n­avirus death in Wash­ing­ton state, is suf­fer­ing as its adver­tis­ing busi­ness has tak­en a severe hit.

The coro­n­avirus cri­sis is lay­ing bare not only vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the sup­ply chain and the pro­duc­tion sys­tem but in Amer­i­can infor­ma­tion systems―vulnerabilities caused in part by the col­lapse of local news. 

This cri­sis offers a warn­ing that we should not ignore. We must find a way to rebuild and rein­vig­o­rate our local news sys­tems for the larg­er crises yet to come.

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