The NewsGuild has issued an unprecedented appeal for public funds to head off an “extinction-level event” for newspapers in the United States as the COVID-19 crisis engulfs the country.
The TNG Executive Council, which includes CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon, held several emergency meetings over the weekend to devise a strategy to sustain distressed news-gathering operations, which are considered an essential service during the pandemic.
TNG — like the Canadian union, a part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) — came up with a nine-point plan that calls for “federal, state, provincial, and local governments to provide public funds to sustain news operations” and possibly to ensure their long-term viability.
Employers who receive public funds, said TNG, must agree there will be no layoffs, furloughs, buyouts or pay cuts:
“In this crisis, it’s essential that we invest in and retain journalists and other media workers, especially in local communities where Americans need to know when schools and businesses are open, where testing centers are and what the current case and death totals are. The financialization of the industry has reduced the number of journalists available to share life-saving information during this crisis. This cannot be allowed to continue.”
Thanks to several years of lobbying efforts by organizations like CWA Canada, this country is well ahead of the U.S. in terms of government support for journalism and the flailing newspaper industry, O’Hanlon said.
With the onset of the global health crisis, a $595-million media bailout announced in March 2019 has been kicked into high gear. Another boost for the media industry came in the form of a $30-million ad spend by Health Canada for its COVID-19 campaign.
A temporary 75-per-cent wage subsidy that, as of Monday, will now extend to all businesses, could well save hundreds of journalism jobs and publications themselves.
Previously, a five-year, $50-million Local Journalism Initiative to support news reporting in underserved communities, was hailed by O’Hanlon as “a good first step” when it was announced in February 2018. That program, administered by seven non-governmental organizations so as to preserve press independence, got under way in 2019.
When the $595 million in tax credits and other incentives were unveiled, O’Hanlon welcomed the measures, but worried that a possible loophole could let a company like Postmedia funnel millions to vulture fund debt-holders or to huge executive salaries or bonuses.
“The money must go toward improving journalism,” O’Hanlon said.
TNG-CWA President Jon Schleuss echoed that concern, saying the union’s goal in calling for a stimulus package is twofold: “Save and protect the jobs in the news industry now without supporting hedge funds and private equity groups who pillaged our workforce. Seed a future that promotes a sustainable news industry supported by the public.”
Schleuss said that Guild members across the U.S. and Canada “have been working tirelessly to provide accurate information to our communities about the coronavirus pandemic. This kind of important journalism is needed more than ever right now.
“But the news industry’s very ability to provide that information, at a time when it is needed most, is at risk. Business closures across the continent have decimated advertising markets, even as readership online skyrockets.
“The industry was already suffering and entered this crisis without enough workers to cover this story: the largest one in our lifetime.”
“Now,” said Schleuss, “we’re facing a possible extinction. We’ve seen newspapers cut print days because of the pandemic, and thousands of our members” face pay cuts and layoffs.
The value of local journalism to communities large and small was underscored in Washington, the state that experienced the first outbreak of COVID-19.
Michele Matassa Flores, Executive Editor of The Seattle Times, told CNN in an interview that the newspaper is setting subscription records and readership is “through the roof.”
“This is proving the worth of local journalism. Journalism in general, but I would say especially local journalism, more than anything I can remember in a 35-year career.”