A COVID-19 Bail Out for Newspapers Would Perpetuate a Dying Business Model

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, have joined 17 colleagues in signing a letter calling for emergency COVID-19 funding for regional and local news outlets.

“Local news is in a state of crisis that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote. “Local papers and local broadcasters have lost even more of the advertising revenue they rely upon from [businesses that have shut down]. Communities across the country have seen the further decimation of this important industry as local publications have stopped printing and laid off staff in the last few weeks.”

Great idea! Where do I sign up for my share of the money?

Wait, what? Bacon’s Rebellion won’t qualify? Blogs need not apply? The letter goes on to say:

“Any future stimulus package must contain funding to support this important industry at such a critical time. Such a provision should be tailored to benefit aid recipients who make a long-term commitment to high quality local news.”

Who make a long-term commitment to high quality local news… Here’s the crucial question: Who decides what constitutes a “long-term commitment” and what constitutes “high quality local news”?

The letter doesn’t say, but I would suggest that the job most likely would be given to some “reputable” organization here in Virginia like the Virginia Press Association, which represents vested media interests against upstart competitors. I don’t see the VPA looking out for blogs, no matter how much news they report. (Consider how the VA News digital clipping service provided by the Virginia Public Access Project stopped including Bacon’s Rebellion’s straight news coverage on a variety of topics, most notably Steve Haner’s reporting on the State Corporation Commission.)

Look, I agree with our august senators that the long-term decline of the commercial newspaper industry in Virginia, and nationally, is a tragedy. I share the letter’s view that “local news plays an indispensable role in American civic life as a trusted source for critical information … on governance, elections, health, and numerous issues specific to their cities, towns, and neighborhoods.” And I certainly think that newspapers and television stations should be entitled to the same kind of financial backstops as every other small- to midsized business. (I normally oppose business subsidies of any kind, but these ain’t normal times.)

But giving special consideration to a dying industry? Dumping cash into local newspapers and televisions won’t address the long-term challenges that the letter acknowledges has devastated the industry: “The growth of social media and technology platforms has concentrated critical advertising revenue in the hands of a few.”

Local media enterprises need to reinvent themselves. No one knows yet what the new model will be. Perhaps a foundation-funded model — as in the Virginia Mercury and Virginia Public Media — is the way to go. Perhaps the volunteer model — Bacon’s Rebellion, Kerry Dougherty’s blog, Blue Virginia, and others — is the way to go. Or perhaps an new business model will emerge that’s based upon an entirely novel revenue source.

There is a demand for local and regional news. Some creative entrepreneur needs to figure out how to monetize that demand. However, federal subsidies for legacy news enterprises wedded to an outdated business model will only perpetuate the status quo and crowd out experiments and innovation by entrepreneurs seeking to find the new business model. If legacy media enterprises are going to die, we might as well let them get on with it so we can figure out what comes next.

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29 responses to “A COVID-19 Bail Out for Newspapers Would Perpetuate a Dying Business Model”

  1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

    A bailout will only make the cost of the funeral higher.

    1. I agree with you and Mr. Bacon. This is doubling down on a bet that the Astros would win the 2019 World Series.

      1. After the 8th inning in that last game. — Happy Easter everyone!

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m not too hot on the idea of govt money going for “news”. I can see this going in a lot of different and wrong directions depending on who is giving out the money.

    Money from the govt for “news” is a dangerous concept.. and I’d bet
    that folks from all political philosophies might feel the same unless
    it’s purely helicopter money like we’re seeing with everything else.

    Most blogs OTOH are really a fair amount of commentary and often are directed to preferred audiences, and they really don’t well tolerate comments from others who have a different view. They often get run off so I do highly respect blogs that allow all voices – much like a letters to the ed on a lot of newspapers.

    but not enough to advocate helicopter money! 😉

  3. Down here the Virginian Pilot only killed its own self. I could and have put out stories where they got reporting wrong or didn’t report the truth. Trying to hide their sources on council.
    Frankly the better reporting is from here. Kerry’s blog has too much blather on it. She also only does VB rather than a few other areas. I cover Chesapeakes’ City Hall scene, most down here have cognitive dissonance tremendously or don’t care.

    1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

      That’s what happens when you rely on the kindness of strangers or if your city bankrolls the tourist trade.

  4. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    Not with a bang, but with a thooo-tick, beep, beep, beep,
    thooo-tick, beep, beep, beep, thooooo, beep, beeeeeeeeee

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Something that really stands out – is how much of the economy is based on discretionary spending that also includes advertising that, in turn, sustains “news” through ads.

    Some of the big hits on the economy are restaurants, retail, and sports and entertainment.

    A significant portion of our economy is not stuff that we must have and the further irony is that it’s the same part of the economy that caters to social interactions and thus is seriously damaged by social distancing.

    People miss this and they want to get back to it… the restaurants, theme parks, tourism, vacations, cruise ships, sports and entertainment.

    anyone else share this perspective?

  6. The problem for most daily papers is that most of the under 50 set just doesn’t care what the City Council or School Board does. Yet, they keep on with the same pigeonholes at daily papers that they had in the 70s: you do crime/courts, you do City Council, you do schools. Seriously: you and Mr. Haner used to write for daily papers…Aren’t those the exact same beats from 40 years ago? Why do they keep pushing the same beats when audiences clearly don’t care about those beats in this day and age?

    The local news that most under 50 crave is about restaurants or new businesses in town. I note that RichmondBizSense has been pretty successful.

    As to the over-50 set, newspapers have shot themselves in the foot by firing their seasoned staff in the name of cost-cutting. Please be honest: Do either you or Mr. Haner trust the 20 somethings that are doing the “reporting” at all of Virginia’s dailies? The articles that I read are poorly written and basically just a compilation of quotes and maybe a stenographic recitation of a FOIA request. There is no actual reporting going on. The only one left at the RTD worth reading is Schapiro, and he’s a columnist, not hard news.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Micheael Martz and Frank Green of the RTD are good reporters for their “beats”. Shapiro writes well, but I wish he would take on some substantive subjects dealing with state government. He prefers to deal with political gossip and speculation.

      1. Fair. Martz is good. But as someone whose commentary I admire…Do you think most of what you read in the RTD is worth paying for? 25 and 26 year olds for the most part are reporting the news with almost no training except, “Go to meetings and write what you see” or “FOIA the salary records every every year and put it in an Excel spreadsheet.”

        There was a time when the RTD and other papers had reporters who were willing to dig and talk to multiple people with different angles before printing a story.

        Take a land use story. There was a time when a reporter would visit neighbors of a controversial project. They would talk to the developer. They would talk to all of the City Councilors. They would talk to other interest groups. They would go to the Planning Commission. They would talk to city staff in the Planning Department. They would run multiple articles about the project. Now? No background work. The reporter simply shows up at the City Council meeting where the vote occurs and give a developer quote, an opposed citizen quote, and maybe a City Councilor quote. No context, no background, nothing.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          This is true, but the govt process still happens and information is collected and made available.

          We took it for granted that we ourselves did not have to use our own time to find out – and participate – now – we have to get off our own butts and go do…

          Will also point out – don’t know where you are but a lot of the info is on a website and you can tune in to the meetings and watch.

          Were we lazy and taking news reporting for granted?

          1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            Larry, this is a little simplistic. Most of the background information needed to understand what is going on, especially with land use decisions cannot be found on websites and is not going to come out in public meetings. Most decisions are made before the public hearings and meetings are held.

            As for using our own time, most people do not have the time to ferret out this information nor the knowledge on where to go to get that information. That is why we pay to get a newspaper.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            hey Dick – was being a little flip – but in our county, the “folder” for a proposed land use is online and the county requires the developer to hold a community meeting and that is also online and the Planning Commission and BOS are online/broadcast.

            So – yes… some stuff is not easily seen unless a reporter digs into it a little… I agree…

            By the way…. some reporters now-days have already been “attending” some meetings by watch it online or on TV… and
            of course, now… that’s the standard anyhow.

            But you are right. When I “read” the local paper these days, I go past all the national news.. I get that 24/7 already, so I go straight to REGION… I also like to go to other places newspapers to see what issues they are dealing with but that’s gotten almost impossible with paywalls.

            I don’t know the answer and I do fear the loss.

            The FLS in Fredericksburg is making even more cuts – I think they are down to less than 10 reporters now… and things like school board meetings are no longer covered unless there is some controversy brewing.

        2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          In general, I agree with you on the dearth of good background reporting. I miss Joe Gatins and Dale Eisman. I have been around long enough to miss James Latimer, the dean of the Capitol press corps, and even Charles McDowell, who covered national politics.

          To its credit, the RTD last fall published multiple articles outlining its findings resulting from a year-long investigation of the relationship between MCV and the appointment of guardians. There was reform legislation passed in the last General Assenbly stemming from that investigation. You may not have been participating in BR when I highlighted that series. https://www.baconsrebellion.com/the-issue-of-guardianship-and-the-contribution-of-a-newspaper/

          Despite its shortcomings, the paper does have value for me, primarily for its stories about things going on around Richmond. I don’t know where I could get that information otherwise. Its national section consists primarily of wire service articles from AP, the NYT, or the Wasington Post. Its coverage of the General Assembly is pretty good; otherwise its coverage of state government is mediocre at best, which is really disappointing considering it is the paper in the capital city.

          Another writer I like is Bill Lohmann. He is not hard news, but his profiles of ordinary people, both in Richmond and in other parts of the state, are delightful.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Yet, they keep on with the same pigeonholes at daily papers that they had in the 70s: you do crime/courts, you do City Council, you do schools.”

    Yep. And yet there are …. elections….

    and those papers also cover General Assembly and Congressional elections also… so.. does the under 50 set not vote or they do vote but they get their information about the candidates from what sources?

    you also said “hard news”.

    And I note that even here in BR – the likes of WaPo, and NYT and WSJ are often quoted… I presume, because, it’s considered “hard news” ??

    I’m not of the view that local news will “die”. I cannot imagine relying on blogs for hard news…. call me a skeptic

    1. The under 50 folks I know do not rely on the RTD or the Free Lance Star for information on who to vote for…And these are people with bachelor’s or master’s/professional degrees. They’re not dumb. They just couldn’t care less what a 23 year old writes about local gov’t or the school board. Maybe that’s not healthy. I don’t know. But I can literally count on one hand the amount of people 49 and younger I know that subscribe to a local newspaper.

      Some of them do subscribe digitally to NYT or WSJ. But none of them subscribe to a local paper.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        yep… so how do they get informed about candidates for state office? social media? blogs, campaign advertising?

        1. That’s the problem, Larry, they get it from friends, and maybe FaceBook. All from the same echo chamber; no exposure to the MSM or any other broader factual baseline.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            still… urban areas tend to vote reliably blue and rural – red.

            does that have anything to do with “news” and how it is changing?

  8. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Allowing politicians to bail out newspapers is among the most dangerous and foolish proposals one can imagine. This of course is exactly why Virginia’s two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are proposing this bill. Virginia morphing in China, yet again.

  9. Neither newspapers nor news broadcasters are “a trusted source for critical information.” Lying, these days, has become the new norm. To get information about candidates, people must understand the issues, look at the candidate’s website, and listen to those criticizing the candidate. That process takes work, especially the reading needed to understand the issues. The young do not seem to think it is worth the work, so they vote on feelings — often fueled by hatred generated and maintained by the newspapers and broadcasters.

  10. warrenhollowbooks Avatar

    “And I certainly think that newspapers and television stations should be entitled to the same kind of financial backstops as every other small- to midsized business. ”

    . . . uh, no–
    How can anyone suggest this with a straight face- an industry already deeply politically involved and which identifies 90% with one party

    Imagine if Trump suggested the gun industry be bailed out to preserve the 2nd Amendment . . . that would be stupid . . . but less stupid than this.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here is an example of NEWS:

    Virginia gov seeks to delay minimum wage hike due to virus


    Now, as far as I can tell, no blogs independently sourced this news.

    It appears to have come from the AP.

    Now, I also ask – is this a “liberal” report?

    is it “hard news”?

    Do we know how this kind of “news” will be objectively reported – just the facts – not commentary – if MSM goes away and leaves “news” to blogs and other “sites”?

    Now you can bet that a lot of commentary blogs will pick this hard news up and spin it according to their political leanings.

    Count on it.

    But the real question is – do you want to read the objective fact-based news itself BEFORE you read commentary on it?

    Was the above link provided above – “fact-based” and objective?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I thought the article was reasonably balanced and concentrated on facts rather than the interpretation of facts. The worst are when the reporter speculates as to how something will affect a particular group of individuals and when other perspectives are ignored. The Post commits these “errors” on a regular basis.

      I haven’t read the Post on a regular basis for the last 12 years or so. I doubt that I miss much as I read a lot of other sources on the web. About once a month or every other month, someone will send me an email link to a Post local article that I wish I had read. But even then, I often already know more about the issue than what I found in the article.

      When I was a kid, I read the St Paul Pioneer Press and the Dispatch regularly every day. I followed the Minnesota Legislature and Governor daily from the time I was 11. I learned many issues were complex as reporters in those days bothered to include multiple perspectives. Contrast a typical Post article about how schools need more money that never mentions efficient operation, duplicative programs and failed ones. Are reporters more stupid these days or are they just ideologues?

      I read the St Paul paper until I left for Omaha, where I read the World Herald daily, as I read the Des Moines Register when I lived in that city. I read the Post until my wife said it was too expensive and wasted too much of her time. I’ve never reached the paywall limit.

  12. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The idea of government funding for media is contrary to the concepts underlying the First Amendment and freedom of the press. How about some of the big foundations funding free access by paying the fees needed by the media to operate?

  13. Fred C. makes the point, “To get information about candidates, people must understand the issues, look at the candidate’s website, and listen to those criticizing the candidate. That process takes work, especially the reading needed to understand the issues.” Of course. I remember my parents pulling out the League of Women Voters’ special insert in the local paper before every election and discussing the candidates for every office, even down to the “Soil and Conservation Board” candidates.

    Now that insert doesn’t exist. The LWV doesn’t publish a compilation of election information on-line any more. The local paper (in my case the WaPo) makes an attempt to review who’s running for local offices and what their positions are, but it’s a brief snapshot; many areas in Virginia have nothing.

    So doing the “work” of being an informed voter has got harder. And at the same time, the younger folks are less interested in doing the “work” of democracy. What is it we’re missing: the lack of education in civics in our schools? Our children’s lack of exposure to government in action? The lack of after-school extra-curricular activities and organizations like the BSA teaching children through merit badges and such how they can actually accomplish things, including by influencing local government? The newspapers aren’t causing these trends; they are responding in a time of triage to what their readers most want to read.

  14. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “The local paper (in my case the WaPo) …”

    So that’s the root problem. You poor devil.

    Thank God, you were educated, and extremely well, in a more rigorous time, when the world was sane – up was up, down was down.

  15. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    More as to why the Post is not much different than Der Stürmer was except for the difference in the political party for which the papers published propaganda.


    Some of the key discoveries.

    “Hoping to debunk Reade’s [Biden’s accuser”] allegation, the Post sent four reporters into the field. The four reporters failed to accomplish this mission.

    “Instead, a friend of Reade’s corroborated her account of a conversation in which Reade described the incident soon after it allegedly happened in 1993. In addition, Reade’s brother said that, in the same year, she told him of inappropriate touchings by Biden.

    “The friend, then an intern for another Senator, told the Post that, in Reade’s account to her: She was pinned up against the wall. His hands went under her skirt. . .He pushed his fingers into her, not at her invitation.

    “According to the Post, Reade’s brother initially told him of ‘parts of her experience with Biden, but not the alleged assault.’ Later, the brother sent a text stating that he did recall Reade telling him that Biden put his hands under her clothes.

    “All of this is buried deep in the Post’s story. The Post leads with the fact that Reade ‘last year said Joe Biden touched her neck and shoulders. . .[but] is now accusing him of sexually assaulting her. . . .’”

    If Democracy Dies in Darkness, why isn’t sharing page one with COVID-19 on a regular basis? And be damn sure that it won’t be mentioned in Post editorials, especially where Fred Hiatt endorses Biden.

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