It is an alarming paradox of the Plague Era: Amid an economic crisis triggered by a public health emergency, the demand for credible local journalism seldom has been higher, while the supply of dollars needed to sustain it is rapidly collapsing.
Across the nation, the sudden and sweeping shutdown of the economy induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged, among other things, the eternally scuffling local news industry, as small businesses whose advertising is its lifeblood abruptly and unexpectedly cease operations.
“It turns out, COVID-19 makes for a nearly perfect weapon against alternative weeklies,” the editor of the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, who had just laid off his entire staff, informed his readers last week.
“We could see it happening, but the speed has been stunning,” wrote editor Doyle Murphy. “One day, you’re a profitable newspaper, doing better every year; the next, almost all of your ad revenue is wiped out with no clear sign of when it will return.”
As Ben Smith, the most visible media critic in the U.S., puts it in his Monday NYT column, "It’s a moment of deep crisis for the local news business, which could have been blown over by a light breeze and is now facing a hurricane."
In Santa Barbara, staffs at the handful of small media businesses that serve and have earned the public trust with reliable local journalism, labor under the same psychological fears, physical vulnerabilities and social distancing restrictions as everyone else;
Nonetheless reporters, editors, photographers and digital whizzes within SB’s small but scrappy journalism community have performed admirably in scrambling to cover the local impacts and implications of the global coronavirus event, laboring energetically, doggedly and tirelessly to churn out a steady stream of solid explanatory, educational and enterprise reporting on a complex, constantly moving and uncertain story with the highest stakes imaginable.
As each day of the crisis passes with no clear end in sight, however, the loss of advertising revenue deepens, threatening the future of their operations and missions.
This is your periodic reminder to support local journalism.
Baby, baby please. So fraught are the financial times for the local news biz that no less a figure than Nick Welsh, the Angry Poodle his own self, while normally unburdened by P&L-related activities, came forth in the Santa Barbara Independent’s online and thin print editions this week to issue a stark plea for help.
Along with an appeal for readers to invest in coverage by paying for a subscription, he also made an ask for tax deductible donations to the Indy’s training program for young journalists, in association with the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN).
“For a publication that does a better-than-passable impersonation of publishing both a daily and weekly newspaper, I have to say, that’s ridiculously cheap,” he said of the bargain-rate $29,99 subscription.
“Normally, I hate writing letters like this. But the new reality that confronts us all — a mix of 9/11, the Dust Bowl, and the Black Death — is not remotely normal. If the Santa Barbara Independent is to continue doing its job — sifting fact from fiction in the onslaught of a pandemic that was both predictable but unimaginable — we need the resources to keep reporters on staff. Or, to steal a line from Woody Guthrie — do re mi. “
Over at Noozhawk, which has matched its chief rival’s all-hands-on-deck approach to the corona crisis, Publisher Bill Macfayden also made a direct pitch in his week-in-review column, urging readers to underwrite its just-the-facts brand of community journalism via a membership in the site’s “Hawks Club.”
“Our reporters are still out in the community, working round the clock and putting themselves at risk to keep you informed. Thanks to their efforts, you can depend on Noozhawk to tell you the truth — and hold our leaders accountable for how they’re managing this unprecedented crisis.
"But, we need your help, too. While not everyone can afford to invest in local journalism right now, we also can’t afford to lose it. Can we count on you?”
This is your periodic reminder to support local journalism.
Enemies of the state serve the community. The Indy and Noozhawk aren’t alone in rising to the occasion. Newsmakers' "Little Pulitzer" awards this week to:
MJ abides. The Montecito Journal displayed resourcefulness and want-to, not only with its on-brand cover story on eleemosynary community efforts to aid in the crisis and a feature on front-line health care workers from the nimble Mitchell Kriegman, but also with its impressive distribution effort; EIC Gwyn Lurie has boosted the press run to 15,000 (with an assist from Village Properties - shout out Renee Grubb!) and commissioned wily veteran delivery pro Brian Smith to deliver the paper - rubber banded and, when it rained, plastic wrapped, no less - to porches, doorsteps and driveways throughout Montecito and Summerland. Now if she'd just hurry up with that web site.
Edhat scooplet. At SB's only community information site that still allows readers to post comments, inevitably the most entertaining features of almost any item they publish, kudos to Publisher Lauren Bray, who broke the mold and scooped the world on a UC system dust-up, as some employees reacted with outrage to an internal email, marked "urgent," from the Office of the President, that directed university staff to stop donating medical supplies to local hospitals.
At a time when Cottage and other facilities have made public pleas for Personal Protective Equipment, including gloves, masks, goggles and body suits to minimize exposure to the virus, the email from Brent Cooley, UCOP Deputy Director of Environment Health & Safety, put a higher priority on the “need to be maintaining all our PPE stock and inventory for internal UC purposes” than on helping hospitals save lives. Nice.
Scoop of the week. Nick got his hands on an internal letter to employees from Cottage Health President and CEO Ron Werft that not only brought to light new information about the status of patients afflicted with the virus, providing a clearer picture of the local situation than county Public Health had, but also noted Ron’s “urgent tone” in describing the “high-level surge planning” taking place at the hospital.
Explainer of the week. Noozhawk's Giana Magnoli and Janene Scully teamed up on an excellent and detailed 2,500 word deep dive into preparations that Cottage, Marian Regional Medical Center and Lompoc Valley Medical Center are making, presenting new data showing that the actual number of hospital beds available in the county is fewer than the previously reported 906. From their report:
"In Santa Barbara County, there were 860 hospital beds as of 2018 and 71 percent were occupied, which leaves a potential of 250 beds open for additional patients, according to hospital-reported data. There were 82 beds in intensive care units."
Let us pray.
Community hero. Bravo to freelance reporter Melinda Burns who, along with Newsmakers, is pioneering a bold new business plan for local news reporting appropriate for Santa Barbara: Volunteer your work for free.
Burns, who makes her high quality stuff available to nearly all local news outlets at the same time and the same no-cost price, reminded us there still exists a world outside the pandemic, with two stories the otherwise occupied other guys missed: the first a takeout on how Assistant County Executive Officer Barney Melekian is leading the charge against deadbeat pot growers trying to stiff the county out of tax payments and the second a scooplet on the city of Carp taking ownership of the 22-acre Rincon Bluffs Preserve property to manage as open space. So there still is good news in the world.
Bottom Line. To Professor Victor Pickard of Penn's Annenberg School for Communication, writing in a new book, Democracy Without Journalism?: “Without a viable news media system, democracy is reduced to an unattainable ideal.,"
Did we mention this would be a good time to pony up for local journalism?
The Times reports on "Local News Outlets Dealt a Crippling Blow by this Biggest of Stories."
"The Fate of the News in the Age of the Coronavirus" is examined in The New Yorker.
"Hundreds of Journalists are Being Laid Off Right When the Public Needs Them the Most," writes CNN business reporter Kelly Flynn.
The Columbia Journalism Review weighs in on "How Metro Papers Are Dealng with the Pressure of COVID-19."
Ben Smith has some tough love for the ink-on-dead-trees industry in "Bail Out Journalists. Let Newspaper Chains Die."
Images: icfj.org; Nick Welsh; Bill Macfayden; Gwyn Lurie; Lauren Bray; Ron Werft; Giana Magnoli; Melinda Burns; paaet.edu.kw