U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) joined their Senate colleagues in a letter calling for funding to support local journalism and media to be included in any future COVID-19 relief package. In a letter to Senate leadership and the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the Senators warn that the widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes plummeting advertising revenue and profits, could decimate regional and local news outlets even as communities have become increasingly reliant on their reporting during the public health crisis. While news outlets across the country have reduced or eliminated print editions, Virginia newspapers have implemented pay staff cuts and furloughed staff to deal with the financial impact of COVID-19.
“The current public health crisis has made the already vital role of local news even more critical,” wrote the Senators. “Some of the most important guidance for families and businesses during this crisis has been highly localized. Local journalism has been providing communities answers to critical questions, including information on where to get locally tested, hospital capacity, road closures, essential business hours of operation, and shelter-in-place orders. During this unprecedented public health crisis, people need to have access to their trusted local news outlets for this reliable and sometimes life-saving information.”
Last month, Gannett Co., Inc., owner of several Virginia daily and weekly newspapers such as The News Leader in Staunton, Va., The Progress-Index in Petersburg, Va., and Virginia Lawyers Weekly announced that employees making more than $38,000 must take a week of unpaid leave on a rotating basis. Additionally, Lee Enterprises, Inc., informed its employees through a company-wide memo that they would face either a pay reduction or furlough equivalent to two weeks of salary. Lee owns newspapers in Virginia, including: the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va., The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., The Register & Bee in Danville, Va. the Herald Courier in Bristol, Va., the Martinsville Bulletin in Martinsville, Va., the News & Advance in Lynchburg, Va., the Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va., The Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va., the Smith Mountain Lake in Hardy, Va., the Star-Exponent in Culpeper, Va., SWVA Today, and the Franklin News-Post in Franklin County, Va.
“Local journalists have proven themselves to be valiant first responders during this pandemic, exposing themselves to a dangerous virus in order to get the story to the people,” said PEN America’s Washington director, Thomas O. Melia. “They are ‘essential workers’ as many executive orders on staying at home at the state and local level have explicitly noted. The sector as a whole is suffering gravely as the nationwide shutdown has accelerated their loss of revenue. This is why we at PEN America support Senator Blumenthal’s initiative to urge Senate leaders to include specific targeted stimulus relief for local journalism at this critical time.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the extraordinary value of local news outlets, which have seen huge jumps in traffic since the beginning of March. Local news stories are now among the most viewed stories in the country – even as local media fight to survive the pandemic. Without funding from the next stimulus package, we may lose one of the most important sources of information we have to navigate through this crisis,” said Lisa Macpherson, Senior Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge.
In addition to Sens. Warner and Kaine, the letter was led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and signed by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jack Reed (D-RI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Angus King (I-ME), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tom Udall (D-NM), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Joe Manchin (D-WV).