Discussions over federal support for local journalism include religious media

Cleveland – Local news outlets, including diocesan newspapers, are being touted as vital sources of information during the COVID-19 pandemic worthy of inclusion in a new round of federal emergency aid.

“If there ever was a time for community news, it’s now,” said Michael Copps, former member of the Federal Communications Commission and former consultant to the US Bishops’ Committee on Communications.

Copps was one of three representatives from media advocacy groups whose signatures were at the top of an April 8 letter to congressional leaders calling for federal help so that struggling local media could continue to provide vital information to the public. communities they serve.

The letter was “absolutely” meant to include Catholic and religious media, Copps told Catholic News Service.

“There is no substitute for (local journalism),” said Copps, now senior adviser to advocacy group Common Cause.

Proposals to support local journalism have taken on renewed importance in recent weeks as the media – newspapers in particular – have seen their advertising revenues decline rapidly. With reduced revenues, the media had to lay off editorial and commercial staff, cut hours and wages in order to remain viable.

The Poynter Institute reported that more than 70 community newspaper sites have fired or fired staff, reduced the frequency of publication, or suspended publication altogether since the start of the pandemic. The layoffs affected radio, television and digital media as well, but were not as significant as those in print media.

Two diocesan newspapers – Pittsburgh Catholic and Catholic Outlook in the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona – have ceased publication. Officials from both dioceses cited the pandemic in part for their decisions.

“Every community is different and nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the current coronavirus pandemic,” Copps said. “Local communities need to know how this affects their neighborhoods, how various parts of the economy react, what they are doing to protect themselves, their livelihoods, get good information and keep them safe.

The letter from advocacy groups, signed by representatives of 45 other organizations and academics, cited the important role local journalism plays in providing life-saving information in emergencies. He also said the pandemic has accelerated the decline that local media have experienced for years, causing about one in four US local newspapers to shut down since 2005.

The advocates’ letter came as a group of 19 senators made a similar appeal in early April to Senate leaders to include funding to support local journalism and media in any future emergency aid bill. . “Without this support, communities across the country risk losing one of their primary sources of accurate information on what citizens need to know and do in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” their letter read.

Both letters particularly emphasized the need for funding to be used specifically to keep journalists and editors on payroll so that they can continue to practice independent journalism in a timely manner in commercial outlets and non-profit.

Beyond such a move, advocates called for increased federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support public and community media; support for media that serve African American and Hispanic, immigrant, indigenous, rural and labor communities; and increased spending on public service advertising to deliver public health and government messages.

Negotiations in Congress over a new aid package – the fifth since the pandemic began to spread through the economy and wreak havoc on personal lives – have stalled as Republicans and Democrats tried to ” align priorities with the needs of the nation. Officially, Congress is scheduled to meet again on April 20. However, President Donald Trump has agreed to extend the social distancing guidelines until April 30, which could delay the return of Congress.

JD Long-Garcia, president of the Catholic Press Association, told CNS in an email on April 9 that the organization “does not consider taking a stand on local journalism backed by funding a emergency invoice “.

“We focused on how we can support Catholic media professionals, including education, by forming a COVID-19 task force and defending our media in different ways. This is an important time for them. Catholic media to rally, especially as our organizations are facing financial difficulties. We have already seen some of our members hitting hard enough, “he wrote.

As a sign of financial strains in the publishing industry, Catholic publisher Bayard Inc. announced on April 9 that it was ceasing print editions of four magazines: Hopeful Living, Catholic Digest, Catechist and Today’s Catholic Teacher. The last printed issues of each title will cover the period from May to mid-summer. The online versions of Catholic Digest and Catechist will continue, however.

Hugues de Foucauld, CEO of Bayard, told CNS on April 14 that the decision to end print publications was rooted in finances.

“There is no link with COVID-19,” he explained. “It’s part of a long process that we’re looking for. Right now you have to choose where you should invest.”

De Foucauld declined to say how many people would lose their jobs, acknowledging only that the changes would secure the future of the company. “It’s a painful decision for us. It’s a decision that has to be made. I have a lot of respect for these people who are doing a great job,” said de Foucauld.

In the meantime, he added, Bayard remains “very solvent”.

“We have enough energy and enough personnel to carefully plan for the future.”

Ruth R. Culp