Above, President Trump listens to a reporter’s question during the coronavirus update briefing on April 4, 2020, at the White House. Many news organizations are now under severe economic pressure or folding, as ad revenues decline drastically. Photo: White House/Tia Dufour. Click to enlarge.
WatchDog: Coronavirus Threatens Health of U.S. Journalism, Plus Climate ‘Blackout’ & Disabling FOIA
By Joseph A. Davis
1. Can the News Business Recover from COVID-19?
“Viral” used to be a term of praise in the media world. Not any more.
The COVID-19 global pandemic that has ripped through the United States has done deep damage to the “free press” that has nourished democracy. But there remains hope it may transform journalism for the better in new ways.
For starters, President Donald Trump (whose White House hadn’t held a press briefing for nearly a year) now holds daily briefings in which Trump berates any reporter who asks a critical question. Or just berates any reporter. And lies (may require subscription). And the cable nets run it live, without simultaneous fact-checking. For 90 minutes, sometimes.
Still, Trump may be losing the battle (may require subscription) for the daily news cycle, as his briefings are followed by several prime-time hours of experts explaining why Trump’s claims are untrue. Despite his daily un-reality show, his polls are dropping.
The economic catastrophe has cut into
media advertising revenue so deeply that
local papers are folding or downsizing right and left.
Worse yet for journalism, however, the economic catastrophe caused by the virus (millions of lost jobs) has cut into daily local newspaper and other media advertising revenue so deeply that local papers are folding or downsizing right and left.
The scope and depth of this destruction are just beginning to be realized by national media (may require subscription) preoccupied with other aspects of the pandemic. The Associated Press, writing about it back in March, counted “hundreds” of local outlets going out of business.
And it’s not just tiny locals. In March, Gannett, a holding company that now owns something like 260 dailies, making it the nation’s largest newspaper chain, announced wide-ranging pay cuts and furloughs across its entire empire.
While many individual journalists are still doing great work at some Gannett outlets (I’m looking at you, Ian James), the overall devastation is being caused by a corporate strip-mining trend. Big media holding companies borrow money, buy newspapers and strip them for parts, leaving only the shells and bones.
What’s left is worse-quality journalism that loses more audience.
The same kind of thing is happening at the Tribune Publishing company, a major stake in which is owned by Alden Capital. According to Ken Doctor, the Gannett Company, once worth over $18 billion, is today worth a mere $88 million in market capitalization (it’s really much more than that, when you include debt).
It’s called vulture capitalism.
Whether the decline of news outlets is caused
by television, by the internet, by cable,
by vulture capitalism or by the coronavirus,
it is leaving many American communities in the dark.
Most important, though, is that this process leaves behind vast “news deserts” in large swathes of the United States (see map). This is not an entirely new phenomenon, but it is accelerating (may require subscription). Whether it is caused by television, by the internet, by cable, by vulture capitalism or by the coronavirus, it is leaving many American communities in the dark (may require subscription).
That makes those people more vulnerable to misinformation. And threatens democracy.
But the vast destruction may, we hope, bring transformation. The news industry is changing. We see cable-net superstars broadcasting via Skype from their living rooms. A fresh crop of nonprofit, collaborative, virtual newsrooms are popping up like crocuses across the mediasphere. They are non-corporate, independent, uncompromising. They turn over rocks. They kick ass and print the names.
Freelancers (some recently detached from corporate behemoths, some straight out of J-school) are the lifeblood of these media. Look at ProPublica. Look at 100 Days in Appalachia. Look at Reveal. Look at the newsroom being started by Ken Ward Jr. (one of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ own).
SEJ, we hope, can be part of this transformation. In the past two decades SEJ’s membership has shifted from dedicated beat reporters at major metro dailies to freelancers and independents working in a sweeping range of media that do not involve dead trees. SEJ’s president, Meera Subramanian, in her recent report, sees an SEJ that will be “responsive, adaptive, flexible.”
It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Consternation followed the new New York Times media writer Ben Smith’s March 29 column, “Bail Out Journalists. Let Newspaper Chains Die” (may require subscription), which argued, at a time of multi-trillion-dollar bailouts, that hardworking and skilled journalists of integrity are the thing worth saving. Not hedge funds.
It was a great column. But many, many journalists are still drawing a paycheck from the paleolithic, advertising-based, for-profit corporate model.
Rick Edmonds, in a column for Poynter on March 31, disagreed vehemently. He wrote that a “both-and” approach to business models was best. He pointed to hybrid enterprises like the Report for America project, which shores up existing local newsrooms, as a better example.
Then on April 8, an alliance of concerned organizations and individuals wrote Congressional leaders urging them “to commit at least $5 billion to support local journalism in the next stimulus package.” They specifically asked for “safeguards to ensure that public funding does not impinge on the editorial independence of any news organization.”
While a number of media and journalism professional organizations were among the signers, some big guns were missing, among them the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and the News Leaders Association.
But some major groups representing the publishing and business side of the industry, including the News Media Alliance, the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Newspaper Alliance, signed on.
On the same day, a group of more than a dozen mostly Democratic senators wrote their leaders calling for financial aid to “support local journalism and the media.” This might at first seem tempting, given the loose billions being tossed around beneath the Capitol dome. But it was vague. Unanswered was precisely and technically how it could be done without threatening and compromising the integrity and independence of news media.
If there is such a thing as free money, we are still trying to find it.
2. Climate Crisis? What Climate Crisis?
It may seem petty and parochial to mention it, but the COVID-19 story has knocked the “climate crisis” mostly off the front page — for now.
To some, it feels like a news blackout. Climate change, just a few months ago, was the biggest crisis of all, an existential threat facing the entire planet. Yet we might want to hold our competitive jealousy (after all, we are journalists) for a moment and reflect on the opportunities this brings.
SEJ and SEJournal have pointed out in various articles many virus-environment connections. Climate has intensified disease vectors, increased zoonotic disease and hurt or helped green energy industries.
Our national experience with the pandemic
has tried to teach us the importance of
good journalism and of science in
warning us about what we need to know.
But most importantly, our national experience with the pandemic has tried to teach us the importance of good journalism and of science in warning us about what we need to know. And warning us, also, about our vast national capacity for denying and ignoring science when making hugely consequential public policy decisions.
The warnings on a viral pandemic were there. All the time. Had been there for years. And had been ignored, brushed off and downplayed for years. Journalists had done a lot of the warning.
3. Virus Disables, Weakens FOIA Response at Many Agencies
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has imposed work-at-home rules at many federal, state and local agencies, is slowing their response to Freedom of Information Act requests. The result has often been government in the dark.
Despite legal deadlines for responding to FOIA requests, agencies are using the virus crisis as an excuse to give themselves a pass. FOIA activists are pushing back and urging other requesters to do the same.
One place the issue emerged was at an April 1 webinar sponsored by Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, or RCFP. Moderated by Denise Malan of IRE, it included panelists Jason Leopold of BuzzFeed, and Adam Marshall and Gunita Singh of RCFP.
Some agencies have announced that
they are shutting down FOIA operations.
Others have built in roadblocks.
In response to the virus, panelists said, some agencies, like the State Department, have announced that they are shutting down FOIA operations. Others, like the FBI, have built in roadblocks (the FBI is only accepting requests via snail mail).
Some are trying to function but have huge backlogs. And certain COVID-related agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control, are slow because they are newly swamped by requests stemming from the pandemic crisis.
RCFP has recently published a more methodical review of some of the threats and challenges the virus has posed to open information. It has a program to monitor FOI consequences of the pandemic — including possible use of emergency government authorities to curtail First Amendment activities.
RCFP’s extensive legal analysis, put together by Gabe Rottman, foresees a number of ways restrictions could get worse. Fortunately, it is backed by RCFP’s team of crack lawyers who stand ready in many cases to help journalists who come up against restrictions.
It goes well beyond FOIA response, though. In a piece for NiemanLab, 1st Amendment warrior (and journalism professor) David Cuillier writes that the trend is taking place at all levels of government — state and local as well as federal.
Moreover, he says, the public (not to mention reporters) are being kept out of meetings that would normally be subject to open meetings laws. And sadly, the bans on large, nonessential public gatherings in time of pandemic are being used to justify it.
Cuillier is president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, or NFOIC, a 50-state alliance of FOI and media groups. NFOIC was one of the leaders in a group of some 131 media and FOI organizations signing a March 20 statement calling on governments not to abuse the special circumstances of the pandemic to limit public information, which after all is necessary to public health and welfare.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C., who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog column and WatchDog Alert.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 15. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.