Will Congress bail out ailing local news outlets? 

An empty newspaper dispensary in downtown Lansing | Susan J. Demas

WASHINGTON — Politicians are banding together to try to rescue local news media from economic collapse during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing to fix a small business lending program so that it applies to local news publishers and broadcasters affiliated with larger organizations.

A House bill containing a provision that would do that could arrive as early as this week.

The effort has bipartisan support among members of Congress. But it is unclear whether U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will lend his support to the provision.

Reeling Michigan news outlets face layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts

The House bill is expected to contain numerous other provisions and carry a multi-trillion-dollar price tag. McConnell has signaled resistance to some Democratic priorities, such as aid to state and local governments, and told reporters Monday that he doesn’t feel “urgency” to act immediately.

Schumer took to the Senate floor Tuesday to chastise McConnell for his lack of action this month. “We here in Congress have an obligation to do the nation’s business during this time of crisis,” he said. “But at this critical juncture in our nation’s history, the Republican leadership, led by Leader McConnell, is ducking their responsibility, plain and simple.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, approved in March and replenished in April, gives loans to small businesses to help them stay afloat during the pandemic. But some small broadcasters and publishers that are affiliated with large “parent” organizations aren’t eligible for relief.

Last month, Democratic U.S. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Republican U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin took the lead writing a letter urging congressional leaders to update the program so that more local news publishers and broadcasters could access federal loans.

“Congress must do everything possible to protect local news sources during this crisis to safeguard our democracy and keep our communities informed as our nation responds to the crisis,” the lawmakers wrote.

Informing the public is an essential service, especially during a pandemic, said Danielle Coffey, senior vice president and general counsel of the News Media Alliance. But many news outlets aren’t going to be able to continue to meet expenses without federal relief.

Column: Small businesses need more relief from Congress

“Every other business in the world is getting a loan,” she said. “It’s just not right.”

Lawmakers in both parties and in both chambers also are pressing President Donald Trump — who regularly bashes the news media — to take action in support of local journalism, despite his frequent aggressive criticism of the media as being “unfair” to him.

More than half of House lawmakers and three-quarters of U.S. senators have signed letters urging the Trump administration to direct federal advertising dollars toward local media outlets.

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Fred Upton | Andrew Roth

Signers span ideological spectrum. U.S. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) signed a Senate letter to Russell Vought, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) were leads on a House version to Trump. U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) also signed on.

“We urge you to work with us in ensuring that local media can continue to inform communities, even as these outlets face unprecedented economic distress,” the House lawmakers wrote.

Such advertising campaigns could carry messages about public health and the economy as it reopens, according to the News Media Alliance.

Public trust in the news media is low and falling, according to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult. But people have more trust in the media they regularly use, according to research by the American Press Institute.

Carol Yepes/Getty Images

The news industry was in distress before the pandemic hit, due to plummeting advertising revenues and a changing online environment. From 2008 to 2019, employment at U.S. newsrooms across the country fell by about a quarter, according to the Pew Research Center.

The problem has accelerated during the pandemic, leading to layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts throughout the industry and causing some organizations to close — even as many provide free information related to the pandemic.

In Michigan, major print outlets including the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and MLive have announced cutbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Advance previously reported. Layoffs were already planned at several newspapers due to the late 2019 Gannett-GateHouse merger. The Detroit Metro Times and C&G Newspapers also have made staff cuts.

Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens is a reporter for States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.
Avatar
Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.