What needs to be done to help the media industry

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

If it wasn’t already obvious that the media industry was in dire straits before the coronavirus came along, it has become abundantly obvious now. Every day, it seems, news outlets both large and small announce waves of furloughs, salary cuts, and layoffs for significant numbers of their employees — the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Publishing, BuzzFeed, McClatchy (which had already filed for bankruptcy before the pandemic), Conde Nast, even Fox Corp. have all implemented cuts. Protocol, the tech news startup launched by the owners of Politico in February, just laid off almost half its newsroom. Some newspapers in smaller communities have shut down completely, and may or may not be able to return once the economy picks up. So what should we be doing about this? Should there be some kind of government bailout? Should digital platforms like Google and Facebook be forced to subsidize a public fund for media? And if so, how would the recipients be chosen and by whom?

Those are just some of the questions CJR wanted answers to, so we convened a virtual panel on our Galley discussion platform this week with some of those who have thought long and hard about these issues. We spoke to Victor Pickard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the recent book “Democracy Without Journalism”; Craig Aaron, co-CEO of Free Press; Travis Waldron from HuffPost; David Chavern, director of the News Media Alliance; John Stanton from the Save Journalism Project; Sarah Alvarez from Outlier Media; Anne Nelson from Columbia University; Jonathan O’Connell, a financial reporter at the Washington Post; Steven Waldman, co-founder of Report For America; Chris Horne from The Devil Strip in Akron, Ohio; Melissa Davis from Colorado Media; Yosef Getachew from Common Cause; and John Schleuss, president of The NewsGuild-CWA. Those interviews and more are all available on the Galley featured page.

“it is now abundantly clear that there is no commercial solution for local journalism,” said Victor Pickard. “Local journalism was in shambles even before the pandemic struck. But now the newspaper industry – which is still our major source for original local reporting in the US – is facing existential doom. Given that context, we need immediate emergency funding.” Pickard went on to say that any funds handed out should be conditional on news outlets either becoming nonprofits or working towards that status. “Otherwise, we risk propping up failed commercial models,” he said. Craig Aaron of Free Press talked about the letter that his group, along with PEN America and Common Cause, sent to Congress, calling on the House and Senate to take immediate action to help journalists. The letter asked for emergency funds for newsrooms and increased federal appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support public and community media of all kinds, especially in smaller communities.

Aaron also mentioned something that a number of other interviewees also mentioned, as a way of getting money to the media industry as quickly as possible: namely, the need for increased spending on advertising by the government, as a way of generating ad revenue for publications that have seen their revenues plummet since the coronavirus appeared. Melissa Davis, acting director of the Colorado Media Project and a vice-president with the Gates Family Foundation, said “I don’t think anyone I know is arguing that public dollars should be a major piece of the revenue pie for local news. But I also don’t think there is any good argument — especially in this moment in time — that local media businesses are any less deserving of public support than local restaurants or car dealerships or even arts organizations.” Chris Horne of The Devil Strip, which has sold shares to many of its readers, says he favors a loan fund to start and strengthen local news co-ops and nonprofits, similar to the loans the government provided to small communities to bring in electricity in the 1930s.

John Stanton, a former BuzzFeed correspondent who co-founded the Save Journalism Project, said he believes there need to be “some fundamental changes to the online ad markets to ensure that Google and Facebook can’t do this again. They’re incredibly nimble organizations and have proven repeatedly that they’ll develop new ways to syphon up as much money as possible.” Steven Waldman, meanwhile, was one of the few with a ready-made partial solution at hand: namely, the launch of the latest cohort of Report For America journalists — 225 reporters and editors who will be working (virtually) for more than 160 news organizations across 46 states, as well as Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. The Report For America project already has 59 journalists in newsrooms around the country, including non-profits like Mississippi Today, as well as public radio, like KEUR in Utah and KERA in Texas, and newspapers like the Detroit Free Press and the Dallas Morning News.

Here’s more from our virtual panel:

Will it happen? When it comes to the likelihood of any of the proposals getting traction and becoming law, Jonathan O’Connell of the Washington Post said that getting actual funding from the government for local news publishers “is one of the hardest sells. President Trump, in particular, as well as other politicians of both parties, have taken to really attacking the integrity of the press with such vitriol and regularity that I think a bailout for the media is going to be hard for some members to get behind.” Some media companies might be eligible for existing loans or grant programs, he said, and there might be a chance of getting support for steering existing government ad spending towards local news, or other tax changes.

Re-invent media: Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media said that if she could completely reshape public media, which she believes is necessary even without the coronavirus, “I would want to get a bunch of people thinking about what the information channels and processes we need to be public in this day and age. Fifty years ago it was enough to turn over some radio stations and a television station to work in service of the general public good. There was a lot of value created in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but it is not enough by a long shot. What are the tools and informational channels our communities want collective control over so they can trust these channels to keep them informed and connected?”

Communities: Victor Pickard says that ultimately, newsrooms need to be “owned and controlled by local communities and journalists themselves. And toward this aim, the current crisis is an opportunity to restructure our news and information systems. We’re beginning to have exemplars and case studies that we can point to such as the Salt Lake Tribune which recently transitioned to a nonprofit.” There are also some cautionary tales, however, Pickard says, including the Canadian government, which was criticized for subsidizing incumbent publishers over independents. The BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting project also faced criticism from helping out the same publishers who were to blame for much of the local journalism crisis.

The money problem: Anne Nelson, author of a recent book called “Shadow Network: Media, Money, and Secret Hub of the Radical Right,” said that many fundamentalist and right-wing media operations “sidestepped the business model problem.” For example, she says, the right-wing fundamentalist American Family Radio and Bott Radio networks carry ads from a consortium of organizations that receive funding from donors such as the DeVos family, as well as groups linked to the Council for National Policy, and others. The news operation of Salem Media, she says, has built a business model based on payments from pastors of megachurches and other religious organizations.

Other notable stories:

There were some raised eyebrows within the media industry when Axios co-founder and chief executive Jim VandeHei announced that his news site will be getting close to $5 million as a low-interest pandemic-related loan from the Payroll Protection Program, according to a report by The Daily Beast. “That’s a little bit weird,” said a prominent news executive who asked not to be further identified, and whose organization is too large to benefit from a program designed to help small businesses with 500 employees or fewer. “It strikes me as one of those appearance-of-conflict arguments that are obviously pretty compelling inside traditional journalism and ivory tower-ish circles,” said Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine.

Facebook has said it is committed to combating misinformation about COVID-19 circulating on the platform, but The Markup reports that the social network had an ad targeting category for people interested in “pseudoscience,” which according to Facebook’s ad portal contained more than 78 million people. The Markup successfully paid to advertise a post targeting those people, and it was approved by Facebook. The site also paid to “boost” or promote a post targeting people interested in pseudoscience on Instagram, the Facebook-owned platform. After The Markup asked Facebook to respond to the story, the pseudoscience category was removed.

Google designed and considered rolling out a feature that would allow readers to tip or give money to media outlets as part of its Contributor program, according to a report from TechCrunch. Screenshots of the tipping feature showed the ability to make one-time donations of 20 cents to $5 to help support sites. “Want to see more content like this on our site? Support with a contribution” one version explained. Google mocked up designs for tipping on the sites of The New York Times, Wired, TechCrunch and others, the report says. TechCrunch said it obtained screenshots of the feature from a source that provided evidence that they came directly from Google.

With no major sporting events and barely any travel happening due to the coronavirus, The New York Times plans to stop printing hard copies of those sections in the storied newspaper’s Sunday edition and replace them with a section focused on life while sheltering in place, according to the business news site Cheddar, based on internal memos and sources. In a note that will be sent out to employees this week, executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joseph Kahn will reportedly tell employees the Travel section of the newspaper will be replaced with a new section called At Home which will debut on Sunday, and the Sunday Sports section will be folded into the front section of the newspaper.

Google has been privately criticised by some of the UK’s biggest news publishers, according to the Financial Times, for failing to adequately to explain its approach to blocking and filtering advertisements alongside coronavirus-related content, as media companies face plunging digital advertising revenues. Many brands are using keyword blacklists and content filters in relation to coverage of the pandemic, which prevent their ads from running next to stories including specific terms such as “coronavirus.” Some media groups have accused Google of a lack of transparency over its approach following concerns that the practices have led to more innocuous coverage, such as explainers and uplifting human interest stories, being caught up in the filters.

A Chinese citizen journalist who posted videos about the coronavirus situation in the city of Wuhan has resurfaced after going missing for almost two months, saying in a YouTube video that he had been forcibly quarantined, according to a Reuters report. Li Zehua was one of three citizen journalists who went missing in Wuhan. A video he published on February 20 showed temporary porters being hired to transport corpses of people who apparently died of the coronavirus. It was viewed 850,000 times on YouTube, which is blocked in China. Days later, he posted live video footage of the police coming to his home, and then disappeared until Wednesday.

Twitter says it will delete “unverified claims” spread on the social network that could lead directly to the destruction of 5G transmission towers in the UK, where conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and the telecom technology have led to a number of incidents in which towers were burned or toppled. Twitter said it would not remove 5G and coronavirus misinformation, but would remove direct incitement to action, such as tweets that called on people to “go and destroy the cell towers in your neighborhood.” Tweets that could cause “widespread panic” will also be removed, such as messages claiming that grocery stores would soon be empty of food.

The publisher of conservative online magazine The Federalist broke federal labor laws when he tweeted last year that he’d send employees “back to the salt mine” if they tried to unionize, a National Labor Relations Board administrative judge decided. Ben Domenech’s tweet was an “obvious threat” rather than a joke or an expression of opinion shielded by the First Amendment, Judge Kenneth Chu said Wednesday. The timing of the tweet — which came on the same day as a walkout by union employees at Vox Media — supported the conclusion that Domenech was sending a message to employees, the judge held.

Independent Digital News and Media, owner of the Independent and Indy100 websites, has put a “limited number” of staff on furlough and cut wages for all remaining employees, according to Press Gazette. As well as freezing recruitment, all those not put on paid leave will take a 20-per-cent salary cut from next month, which is expected to last until at least the end of June this year, the company told staff. Those earning less than $46,500 a year will be exempt from the pay cut. According to the Press Gazette report, Independent staff were only given 15 minutes notice of the video call announcing the new measures and there was no time for questions afterward.

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