The Look in Brief

Will Congress send aid to ailing local news outlets?

By: - May 13, 2020 5:26 pm
Jim Shulman (Official photo, Metro Council of Nashville and Davidson County)

Jim Shulman (Official photo, Metro Council of Nashville and Davidson County)

WASHINGTON — Politicians are banding together to try to rescue local news media from economic collapse during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing to fix a small business lending program so that it applies to local news publishers and broadcasters affiliated with larger organizations. And on Wednesday, he introduced a standalone bill that would do just that.

The House included a provision to do the same in the $3 trillion relief package it introduced on Tuesday.

The effort has bipartisan support among members of Congress. But it is unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will lend his support.

The House bill would also provide nearly $1 trillion in aid to state, local, territorial and tribal governments facing massive revenue losses as a result of shutdown orders. It is slated to be voted on Friday. McConnell has signaled resistance to providing that aid, and told reporters Tuesday he wants to pause before moving forward with another coronavirus bill.

Schumer took to the Senate floor Tuesday to chastise McConnell for his lack of action this month. “We here in Congress have an obligation to do the nation’s business during this time of crisis,” he said. “But at this critical juncture in our nation’s history, the Republican leadership, led by Leader McConnell, is ducking their responsibility, plain and simple.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, approved in March and replenished in April, gives loans to small businesses to help them stay afloat during the pandemic. But some small broadcasters and publishers that are affiliated with large “parent” organizations aren’t eligible for relief.

Last month, Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin took the lead writing a letter urging congressional leaders to update the program so that more local news publishers and broadcasters could access federal loans.

“Congress must do everything possible to protect local news sources during this crisis to safeguard our democracy and keep our communities informed as our nation responds to the crisis,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter was signed by more than 120 lawmakers but only one represents Tennessee: Rep. David Kustoff, a Republican from Germantown.

Informing the public is an essential service, especially during a pandemic, said Danielle Coffey, senior vice president and general counsel of the News Media Alliance. But many news outlets aren’t going to be able to continue to meet expenses without federal relief.

“Every other business in the world is getting a loan,” she said. “It’s just not right.”

Lawmakers in both parties and in both chambers are also pressing President Donald Trump — who regularly bashes the news media — to take action in support of local journalism.

More than half of House lawmakers and three-quarters of U.S. senators have signed letters urging the Trump administration to direct federal advertising dollars toward local media outlets.

Such advertising campaigns could carry messages about public health and the economy as it reopens, according to the News Media Alliance.

Public trust in the news media is low and falling, according to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult. But people have more trust in the media they regularly use, according to research by the American Press Institute.

The news industry was in distress before the pandemic hit, due to plummeting advertising revenues and a changing online environment. From 2008 to 2019, employment at U.S. newsrooms across the country fell by about a quarter, according to the Pew Research Center.

The problem has accelerated during the pandemic, leading to layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts throughout the industry and causing some organizations to close — even as many provide free information related to the pandemic.

The relief bill

In addition to aid for cities and the provision allowing media outlets to be eligible for the loan program, the House bill would:

  • Establish a “heroes’ fund” to give essential workers hazard pay.
  • Provide individuals with another round of direct payments, $1,200 per family member, with a cap of $6,000 per household.
  • Expand a loan program for small businesses so that it reaches underserved communities and nonprofit organizations
  • Strengthen an employee retention tax credit so more employers can keep employees on the payroll;
  • Extend unemployment benefits and help unemployed workers maintain employer-provided health insurance coverage.
  • Bolster housing assistance and food security programs
  • Provide resources to ensure safe elections and other government functions.
  • Provide more money for testing, tracing and treatment.
  • Direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor to set infection-control standards.

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