The economic fallout of the pandemic is crippling the advertising business, as Gannett furloughs staff, BuzzFeed cuts pay, and the Tampa Bay Times reduces printing. Coronavirus has led to a surge in readership—and an existential threat.

There’s no cure-all to fix the news business, but Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has proposed directing stimulus money to help support it at this especially precarious moment. “News-industry experts have been predicting for years that a recession of severe economic downturn would deliver a death blow to these already troubled businesses,” Sullivan writes. “And now a public health crisis has come along to threaten exactly that.” One idea, proposed last week by Craig Aaron, president and co-CEO of Free Press, argued for a stimulus package that would double federal funds for public media, provide direct support to fund local news coverage, and seed a “First Amendment Fund” to support new positions and approaches to newsgathering. Among other steps to support local news, the Atlantic echoed the idea of federal support, proposing that the government “funnel $500 million in spending for public-health ads through local media” as part of its future stimulus plans.
Meanwhile, Ben Smith seems to want to rip the band-aid off. In his latest New York Times media column, Smith calls for “a painful but necessary shift” for saving the news business: look to the future. “Abandon most for-profit local newspapers, whose business model no longer works, and move as fast as possible to a national network of nimble new online newsrooms,” Smith writes, arguing that getting through this crisis requires confronting the reality that “the revenue from print advertising and aging print subscribers was already going away” and “when the crisis is over, it is unlikely to come back.” A large part of the stimulus money that some have advocated for could, Smith warns, go to already-doomed newspaper chains. He instead suggests building new institutions to support local journalists in the form of a new network of nonprofit organizations, citing the Texas Tribune as a promising model of this kind, and small businesses like subscription sites and newsletters.
The New York Times, which now boasts more than 5 million paid subscribers, has only grown in recent years as the newspaper industry contracted—a problem Smith identified in his first Times column earlier this month. In looking at the impact of coronavirus, the New Yorker’s Michael Luo revisits the Times decision more than a decade ago to install a paywall, and how that move helped lead to its financial stability today. Luo notes that the Times, AtlanticWall Street JournalWashington Post, and New Yorker are among the publications that have recently lowered their paywalls for parts of their coronavirus coverage, writing that an independent press keeps citizens informed and defends against “rumors, half-truths, and propaganda that are rife on digital platforms.” While these publishers may lose some revenue as the crisis plays out, they’ve also built solid subscription bases to help counter advertising downturns.
Still, some good news for local news came Monday, as Facebook announced it would invest $100 million to support the business during the coronavirus pandemic, with $25 million in emergency grants going to local news outlets and $75 million more for marketing to help those struggling to survive the current decline in advertising. As the Times reports, this money comes in addition to the $300 million that Facebook already committed to local news by the end of 2021. “If people needed more proof that local journalism is a vital public service, they're getting it now,” said Campbell Brown, the former NBC News journalist who now serves as Facebook’s VP of Global News Partnerships. “And while almost all businesses are facing adverse financial effects from this crisis, we recognize we're in a more privileged position than most, and we want to help.”


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