Local news reporters perform heroic service in the face of coronavirus

By Julie Reynolds

Despite near-daily attacks from the president, years of extreme budget cuts by their companies’ hedge fund owners, and the risks they face reporting daily on the novel coronavirus, local news journalists have shown beyond a doubt why they’re considered “essential” workers.

On Monday, doctors and health care workers were thanked across the country for their outstanding heroism and courage saving lives on the front lines of the corona crisis, and rightly so.

Many on social media also extended compassion and solidarity for service workers — including striking workers at Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods — who risk their lives selling and delivering groceries and other essentials while the majority of the country shelters in place.

And I agree, these health care and service workers have all gone above and beyond in the courage department, and I also agree that society (and the corporations they work for) should take much, much better care of them.

Now I’d love to see the nation thank another group of workers — local news reporters — as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) did on Friday.


Think about it.

Who else is fact-checking official announcements, probing delays in medical equipment deliveries, documenting how the shut-down affects our most vulnerable while still keeping an eye on your city hall?

Hedge-fund-owned newspaper chains like MNG Enterprises (formerly Digital First Media, owned by Alden Global Capital) have already been cut to the bone, and there’s no telling how or if they’ll survive the months ahead as advertising dries up.

Yet even as their livelihoods are in danger of disappearing, news writers, podcasters, videographers and photographers remain out in the world, offering their eyes and ears to the rest of us so we’ll know what’s happening in hospitals, clinics, our neighborhoods and beyond.

Too often these days, journalists are portrayed as cartoonish villains by the likes of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who Tweeted on Saturday that “Some in our media can’t contain their glee & delight in reporting that the U.S. has more #CoronaVirus cases than #China.”

Thankfully, people like Naples News reporter Omar Rodríguez Ortiz responded forcefully. Rodríguez Ortiz replied to Rubio: “There are zero journalists feeling glee or delight about what is happening regarding the coronavirus. ZERO.”


Dangers journalists face

“Journalists around the world are playing a crucial role in keeping the public informed about the virus and governments’ efforts to combat it,” states the Committee to Protect Journalists. “This means that members of the media are often potentially exposed to infection through travel, interviews, and the locations they find themselves working in.”

The CPJ is warning journalists who are pregnant or in groups considered high-risk to avoid assignments that bring them in contact with the public.

But many are still doing just that, often without protective equipment.

This week, NewsGuild units, editors and reporters spread the word about some of the essential and outstanding journalism that continues in the face of coronavirus (both threads are worth the read):

The Allentown Morning Call Guild



And this, from Matt Sebastian, senior enterprise editor at the Denver Post:

This kind of public service can be seen across the country, in big stories as well as seemingly small ones.

I asked Evan Brandt of the Pottstown (PA) Mercury what his paper’s diminished staff has been working on.

He told DFMworkers.org that before Pennsylvania Governor Wolf shut down schools, the Phoenixville School Board “had a rushed meeting on a Sunday afternoon, which I attended after being tipped off about it.”

Brandt live-Tweeted the meeting, which included discussion of a district-wide audit in a venue that attendees claimed might not have been properly announced.

Evan Brandt, speaking in Washington DC last year about the need to protect local news from hedge fund greed.

“Lots of people at the meeting — and there were a surprising number, all seated three feet from each other — accused the board of trying to sweep the audit results under the rug,” Brandt said.

It’s this kind of reporting that keeps communities like Pottstown informed, and that lets officials know the watchdogs are still watching.

Brandt said the Mercury has also been steadily reporting on local emergency declarations “and the daily Montgomery County update faithfully attended, Tweeted and written up by courthouse reporter Carl Hessler.”


Rolling into darkness

Brandt, as we’ve reported, has already survived extreme downsizing by the paper’s owner, Alden Global Capital. His is one of several Alden papers that saw their offices shut down as employees were forced to work from their cars, coffee shops and homes. This happened a year before sheltering in place became the norm, but it wasn’t for health reasons — it was because Alden sold the building.

Despite such hardships, reporters in Pottstown rose to the challenge and their current coverage has seen a big response from readers, especially for the paper’s online edition.

“The latest from the company is that advertising and single copy sales have dried up, no overtime will be authorized and without live sports to cover … the sports reporters are supposed to be available for news coverage,” Brandt said.

“However, as I understand it, our website traffic is up 38 percent since we removed the paywall for all COVID-19 coverage.”

He said the company has not to date provided protective clothing for reporters.

James Herrera, a reporter and NewGuild representative at The Monterey Herald in California said, “We’ve all been working from home since March 16 per management’s orders. So far it seems to be working out well. We’re all mindful of social distancing if we go out in the field, and I know of at least one instance where a reporter said no to covering a press conference and still was able to get the information needed by other means.”

James Herrera of The Monterey Herald

He said a supervisor told staff that the paper’s website traffic is up.

“The downside is we have an earlier deadline now at 2 p.m. But we start at 8 a.m. and make the best of it.”

On Tuesday, both papers’ parent company sent out an email to employees from MNG’s Denver headquarters. While it addressed employee mental health and ways to deal with stress, it did not contain information about safety precautions while reporting in the field.

(MNG has suspended much travel and large company meetings and has instituted guidelines for more frequent sanitizing and hand-washing.)

While the NewsGuild continues to negotiate contracts for a number of Alden-owned MNG papers, cutbacks are looking more than likely, despite newspapers seeing their online readership rocket.

The Gannett chain, which Alden tried and failed to take over last year, is already imposing monthly unpaid furloughs across the chain.

Experts such as the Harvard Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor are warning that local newspapers have abruptly gone from being in financial jeopardy to entering a full-blown existential crisis. Downsizing tactics that hedge-fund owners previously deployed to increase profits will now be accelerated as ad revenue dries up, he warned.

“… Given the deep declines the industry faced pre-COVID, plus the unknown toll going forward, we could well see this reality: four hedge funds and private equity firms controlling a majority of America’s daily press as 2020 rolls on into darkness,” Doctor wrote.

Despite these dire predictions of their future, despite the very real immediate threats to their health and families, reporters in communities large and small continue to risk their lives to keep us informed.

It’s time we thank them.

So please, subscribe to your local paper, give these unsung heroes a shout-out on social media, sign this petition to include local news in the next stimulus package and let local and national influencers know that now, more than ever, you care about your community’s right to know.