Local Journalism is Dying at the Absolute Worst Time

We need more journalists covering a public health crisis. Instead, journalists are losing their jobs.

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic has reached the U.S., businesses across the country, from restaurants to clothing stores to locally owned shops, have all closed. Now, 3.3 million and counting are unemployed and without a steady paycheck. Alongside its public health consequences, the coronavirus is already enacting an economic toll on the country. 

Local journalism has not been immune to this economic drop-off. Recent reporting from CNN Business found that at least 300 people have lost their jobs in local media as a result of the coronavirus. At Buzzfeed, a digital media company that was poised for a profitable 2020, the company has since implemented pay cuts and will scale back on traveling and hiring. Gannett, one of the largest remaining newspaper publishers in the country, announced furloughs and pay cuts across the company. Alt-weeklies are also seeing painful layoffs, according to reporting from HuffPost:

“Layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts have hit Washingtonian Magazine, the Military Times, and, across the border, one of Canada’s few remaining independent alt-weeklies. The Stranger, a Seattle-based newspaper, said this week that it would stop printing and laid off 18 staffers. In St. Louis, the Riverfront Times laid off most of its staff and temporarily suspended its print edition. The Portland Mercury joined them, laying off 10 staffers this week, while the Sacramento News & Review told readers it needed contributions to keep printing after advertising revenues dropped 50% in less than a week. The Advocate, Louisiana’s largest paper, has told staff to keep down expenses and avoid working overtime. The Reno News & Review, which shares a publisher with the Sacramento paper, announced that it will suspend operations indefinitely and lay off its entire staff after Thursday’s issue publishes.”

That communities are losing this many dedicated reporters and editors at a time when a new virus is sweeping the globe and information changes every day or even every hour is the painful, gutting irony of today’s media landscape. Because at a time when it’s crucial for the public to receive accurate information about a novel virus, there are even fewer journalists to obtain and synthesize that information. The tragic irony is even more amplified by a president who has consistently downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus and even lied about his efforts to combat it. 

Louisiana, to give one example, finds itself with a weakened local media landscape at the same time New Orleans is quickly becoming another coronavirus hotspot in the U.S. With the city’s hospitals stretched thin in capacity and resources, new information is being released constantly. What such a fast-paced news cycle requires, especially one with serious public health implications for all people, is more journalists on the ground who can keep in touch with the community and relay vital information back to an ever-frightened public. 

But according to a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, the editor and publisher of The Advocate, the largest daily newspaper in Louisiana, announced that a tenth of its 400-member staff would be furloughed, while the rest would transition to four-day workweeks. But that’s not the whole story: Back in 2012, New Orleans paper The Times-Picayune suffered a major blow when its owner, Advance Local, slashed the paper’s publication from seven to just three days a week, robbing the city of its remaining daily newspaper. Last May, The Advocate purchased The Times-Picayune, turning the New Orleans paper into The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. The result of the purchase: The entire Times-Picayune staff, all 161 employees, lost their jobs.

Now, staff members of The Advocate/Times-Picayune face the daunting task of covering New Orleans as it becomes ravaged by a rapidly spreading virus. Not only are there numbers of cases and deaths to report out, but there are the economic impacts that need to be covered, like the local businesses that have been forced to shut down and the workers that have lost their jobs. Coverage of the pandemic should also highlight the community’s resilience and responses to the virus. In fact, the far-reaching implications of this virus are so vast that it necessitates a large, dedicated team of reporters to cover every aspect of the coronavirus. And outside of New Orleans, there are many smaller communities in the U.S. that cannot even say it has a daily newspaper to begin with. Indeed, news deserts are becoming more common throughout the country, as more local outlets and alt-weeklies shut down after suffering major losses in revenue. 

This is what makes this asinine tweet from Marco Rubio so infuriating in the eyes of journalists: it’s a complete insult to our profession. For the local reporters that are still working, covering the coronavirus has meant trying to juggle our journalism duties with the stress and anxiety caused by the avalanches of information we digest each day. On top of that, many of us are separated from our families and friends, and we constantly worry about the health and well-being of our loved ones. Some of us have even weathered the coronavirus in recent weeks. So no, Marco Rubio, covering the coronavirus isn’t “gleeful” or “fun” in any way. 

It’s important to note here that many of these layoffs could have been avoided, if only wealthy newspaper owners treated journalism more as a public service rather than a money-making business. Just look at the story of The Times-Picayune again: the paper’s previous owner, Advance Local, had cut the paper’s daily publication to pursue a “digital-first” strategy. As a result, New Orleans lost its only daily newspaper at the time, not to mention scores of journalists that lost their jobs in subsequent layoffs. Reporting from Poynter found that, after the purchase and the merger, only 19 of the 65 journalists axed from The Times-Picayune said they plan to stay in journalism in New Orleans, while another 14 said they are leaving the city to practice journalism elsewhere. Only 10 journalists from The Times-Picayune moved to The Advocate after the merger. Let’s say The Advocate never purchased The Times-Picayune, and all 161 of those former employees were still around now to cover the pandemic. That would mean a larger and stronger pool of reporters providing vital, round-the-clock coverage of the coronavirus and its impacts to New Orleans residents.

As it becomes clearer that most of the U.S. has yet to see the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s also becoming painfully clear that we need a strong press in every city and town. Because without a local news presence, what will happen when coronavirus cases begin to increase in these news deserts. Who will be there to report those numbers? Who will be there as the watchdog for the community, questioning public officials on their responses to the crisis? Who will be there to communicate what’s happening in hospitals, on the frontlines of the virus? Who will be there to inform the public? And who will be there when all of this is over?

There’s a quote that says, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” But for the communities that have lost their local outlets, who will write their history?

Headline Facepalm

Let’s take a look at this headline from The New York Times: “Trump Suggests Lack of Testing Is No Longer a Problem. Governors Disagree.” While the story itself discusses the federal government’s failures to provide adequate testing to states, the headline is still an issue. This headline embodies the “both sides” mentality that has been the mistake of many mainstream outlets like The Times. The issue with “both sides” framing is its assumption that the two sides to any issue are equally valid, and therefore deserve equal coverage. “Both sides” framing ends up prioritizing balance over accuracy, all for the sake of appearing neutral and objective.

But we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and it is downright irresponsible to posit as if there are “two sides” to a public health crisis. There is one side, and that is the side of the scientists and public health officials. For weeks, Trump and his administration had downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis, peppering their press conferences with lies and falsehoods about access to testing (Trump has said any American can get tested, but states still lack enough testing kits); the Defense Production Act (Trump said on March 20 that he had invoked the Defense Production Act, but that did not actually happen until March 27); and the lack of PPE supplies in New York hospitals (Trump has pushed the conspiracy that healthcare workers are somehow “hoarding” masks, when the reality is that hospitals are dangerously low on PPE). 

The headline suggests that the lack of testing is a disputable issue, where both sides are equally right. But that framing doesn’t work here, because a lack of testing is a problem as coronavirus cases continue to increase across the country — it’s not something that’s up for debate. 

What I’ve been doing

I recently had a story of mine published in The Beacon, a new local outlet in Kansas City. The story highlights how the economic impacts of the coronavirus have hurt service workers and small business owners in Kansas City. 

Read it here: Local businesses and service workers face economic fallout from COVID-19 pandemic

My roommate/boyfriend has also become my podcast host! Yes, we’re starting a podcast (don’t cringe please), and we’re calling it Quarantined in KC. It’s going to be an interview-based podcast where we speak with different people across Kansas City about how the coronavirus has affected their lives. We recently published our first episode, which includes interviews with a doctor, a retail worker who lost his job because of the coronavirus, and a woman who had been tested for COVID-19.

Some good news: I’ve continued baking! In the past week, I’ve made cinnamon rolls, focaccia bread, more cookies, and white bread. Here’s a highlight reel of my recent bakes:

The first time I made cinnamon rolls, I used this Buzzfeed Tasty vegan cinnamon rolls recipe because I ran out of eggs. One mistake I made: mixing my still-holt melted butter with my still-cold milk, which ended up re-crystallizing the butter. To fix this, I put the butter and milk mixture in a saucepan and warmed the mixture on the stove until the butter was melted again and combined with the milk. Important note: make sure your eggs and milk are room temperature! I let the mixture cool down, then I continued with the recipe as follows. The best part is actually rolling up the dough, which is way easier than you think and very fun! The second time I made cinnamon rolls, I had eggs and followed this recipe from Joy Food Sunshine. To spread the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon filling, I mixed the brown sugar and cinnamon with very softened butter and then spread it over the dough. The first time I made cinnamon rolls, I melted the butter first and then sprinkled the brown sugar and cinnamon on top. I definitely recommend mixing the brown sugar and cinnamon with the soft butter, because it leads to sweeter and more decadent buns. Melting the butter and then sprinkling afterward often results in the filling leaking out of the buns while baking, which we do not like. As always, go hard with the cream cheese frosting, and frost right when you take the rolls out of the oven. You want gooey frosting people!

So far I’ve tried two different focaccia recipes: this one from Bon Appetit and this from Food Network. I slightly prefer the Bon Appetit version, primarily because the use of bread flour led to a chewier and crunchier bread. The Food Network recipe with all-purpose flour was still very yummy, but the dough was not as chewy. The Food Network recipe is also quicker compared to BA’s 10+ hour process. No matter which recipe you use or whether you use bread flour over all-purpose, don’t skimp on the seasonings! In addition to sea salt, I recommend dried herbs and fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary. This bread is super easy to make, even if you’ve never made bread before!

Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this newsletter. Send your comments, questions, and article recommendations to celisacalacal@gmail.com.