WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator John Boozman is among a bipartisan group that on Sunday urged Senate leadership to include local news media outlets in future coronavirus relief legislation.
Boozman, R-Arkansas, along with senators Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, signed a letter asking for local newspapers and television and radio stations to be eligible for small business assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program.
"Local news is essential to keeping us informed during this crisis. Reporters are on the frontlines delivering details the public needs and deserves. At a time when we need this communication more than ever, media outlets are struggling with financial losses as a result of decreased advertising leading to decisions to downsize, furlough workers or close. Ensuring the viability of local news outlets is critical to maintaining access to information," Boozman said via a spokesperson Tuesday.
The senators recommended waiving restrictions that prohibit small business assistance for local media companies affiliated with larger parent companies.
"Up to several thousand newspapers and hundreds of local radio and television stations across the country were cut out of existing programs by the U.S. Small Business Administration's affiliation rule, which restricts assistance to companies owned or controlled by larger entities. Even though these news outlets may be owned by larger groups, they operate independently.
"Ensuring that local news outlets remain viable at this critical time is not only a matter of fairness, but is essential to public health," stated the letter, addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Schumer.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, are leading a similar effort to support local news outlets in the House of Representatives.
The Paycheck Protection Program was created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27.
At presstime Tuesday, congressional negotiators reportedly had reached agreement on a new $480 billion relief package including hundreds of billions of dollars earmarked for small businesses. It was unknown when votes on the proposed legislation would take place or whether funding for local media outlets would be included.
In the letter, the senators noted the dire financial situation of many news organizations nationwide.
"According to the News Media Alliance, newspapers have lost up to 50 percent of advertising revenue for the second quarter of the year. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, traditional media, including local radio and television stations, will see a 43 percent decline in advertising revenue for March and April. The National Association of Broadcasters has found that some local broadcasters have even reported that up to 90 percent of their advertising revenue has been lost," the letter states.
In recent weeks, layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts have become common in newsrooms across the country, with many newspapers discontinuing printing and some media outlets shuttering completely, according to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
On March 31, Inside Radio reported pay cuts and layoffs at Townsquare Media Group and furloughs and pay cuts at iHeartMedia stations. Townsquare has stations and sites in 67 markets, including five in Texarkana. iHeart has stations in 153 markets, including six in Texarkana.
News giant Gannett, which publishes USA Today among many other newspapers, has announced rotating furloughs for employees making at least $38,000 a year and a 25% pay cut for executives. Tribune Publishing, parent company of the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News and the Baltimore Sun, has announced permanent pay cuts of up to 10% affecting all of its more than 5,000 employees.
WEHCO Media, parent company of the Texarkana Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, as well as other newspapers in the region, had not announced any cost-cutting measures as of Tuesday afternoon.
The difficulties presented by the coronavirus pandemic have compounded financial problems news outlets were already experiencing, the senators noted in a news release.
"From 2005 to 2018, newspaper advertising revenue fell from $49 billion to $14 billion, while subscription revenue remained flat. During the same time period, at least 1,800 newspapers went out of business and roughly 28,000 newsroom jobs were lost nationwide," the release states.
The importance of local news warrants congressional action to assist media outlets, the senators asserted.
"Local newspapers, radio, and television stations provide important local content that keeps their communities informed. People rely on local newspapers and broadcasters to cover school and business closures, to widely communicate public health guidance, and to combat life-threatening misinformation," their letter states.