Will Congress send aid to ailing local news outlets?

Production workers stack newspapers onto a cart at a printing and distribution plant. Credit: Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette via AP

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.

A House bill containing a provision that would do that could arrive as early as this week.

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 to the provision.

The House bill is expected to contain numerous other provisions and carry a multitrillion-dollar price tag. McConnell has signaled resistance to some Democratic priorities, such as aid to state and local governments, and told reporters Monday that he doesn’t feel “urgency” to act immediately.

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.

More than 120 lawmakers signed on to the letter, including four from Florida. Those were Democratic Reps. Darren Soto, Val Demings, Charlie Crist and Alcee Hastings.

“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.

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.

“We urge you to work with us in ensuring that local media can continue to inform communities, even as these outlets face unprecedented economic distress,” the House lawmakers wrote.

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.