Local newspapers are falling victim to the coronavirus pandemic. For years, they have been struggling. DW spoke with industry insiders from California, Texas and Washington about the state of local media in the US.
Joey Garcia penned the relationship advice column "Ask Joey" for the Sacramento News & Review, a weekly US newspaper in California, for 23 years. Then came the coronavirus. In mid-March, the News & Review suspended its print publication indefinitely. Garcia's column was dropped as a result.
Garcia says when she heard the News & Review was cancelling its print edition, "I was in shock." The freelance journalist says some of her other jobs were also lost as a result of the pandemic: "Over a three-day period, I lost 75% of my income. I couldn't sleep. There were 24 hours where I didn't know whether to laugh or cry."
Local newspapers in crisis
The Sacramento News & Review has gone through a lot of changes over the past several years. When it first began back in 1989, there were three newspapers in the California state capital: Two dailies, The Sacramento Bee and The Sacramento Union, as well as the weekly News & Review – The Bee has been subjected to extreme downsizing, and The Union folded years ago. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the News & Review to the brink.
Jeff vonKaenel, who shares ownership of the News & Review and two affiliated newspapers in California and neighboring Nevada with his wife, says they had no choice in the matter. The News & Review, which until recently printed 60,000 copies per week, is free of cost and financed largely through advertising by local restaurants, bars and event organizers. But the coronavirus pandemic has led to lockdowns, restaurant closures and the cancellation of events, to which vonKaenel says, "I'm a good salesman, but I can't sell ads for events that won't happen."
Asked when the News & Review will open its doors again, vonKaenel replies, "We ask ourselves that question every night before we go to sleep."
'Don't do anything you don't want to see on the front page'
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the journalism sector at a time when many newspapers in the US are already at the end of their rope. In 2000, roughly 55 million households had newspaper subscriptions. Today, the Pew Research Center think tank says that number has been halved.
Half of all journalism and photojournalism jobs in the US have also been lost since the 2008/2009 financial crisis. Today, according to the most positive estimates, there are roughly 38,000 journalism jobs in the US. Other more realistic estimates put that number closer to 20,000. For reference, 1,700 of those jobs are at The New York Times alone.
Large national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have been largely unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic. But experts say jobs disappearing as a result of the crisis will not be coming back – that is especially bad news for small and medium-sized newspapers that cannot compete on the national stage.
"It's great that The New York Times and The Washington Post are doing well, but we need people to cover city council, school boards and the local arts scene," says vonKaenel. "There's a common ethic mantra [among politicians]: 'Don't do anything you don't want to see on the front page.' What do you do if there's no front page anymore?"
And if there are no local reporters to hold politicians to account, how are people supposed to keep abreast of things like corruption in local government? That lack of reporting leads to the rise of so-called news deserts – areas that no longer have access to information via local newspapers or radio stations. That situation represents an even greater problem than freedom of the press in the US because there can be no such thing as freedom of the press or information if there is no press.
Online news isn't always an option
The issue of news deserts is an especially difficult problem in rural areas across the US. Many communities are shrinking and that means local businesses disappear, leading to decreased advertising revenue for local papers that simply cannot compete with bigger media outlets.
When a local newspaper dies it has far-reaching consequences says Benjamin Shors, a journalism professor at Washington State University (WSU) in the Pacific Northwest: "There's a lack of voter participation in local elections in areas that don't have media reporting on local civic issues." And Shors points to another danger that arises as a result of such closures: "Information voids don't sit empty. The spread of misinformation on Facebook increases. That's dangerous at any time, but especially during a pandemic."
Lisa Waananen Jones, an assistant journalism professor also at WSU, says many people living in the rural US are dependent upon print newspapers and cannot simply switch to online media outlets when local papers go under: "A lot of rural communities still don't have consistent internet access. If newspapers die, it's hard for people." She says many people in rural America depend on local libraries for internet access, but these, too, have been closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Corona and alligators: The South Jetty in Texas
Most of the 4,100 residents of Port Aransas, a town on Mustang Island off the southeastern coast of Texas, get their news in The Port Aransas South Jetty, a weekly newspaper owned and published by Mary Henkel Judson and her husband Murray Judson. The paper has gotten a bit thinner since the coronavirus hit, but it is still on newsstands every Thursday.
Most stories in the paper are related to the coronavirus, "but we try to always do one or two other stories, as a respite for people," says Henkel Judson. One developing story that has been particularly popular on the paper's Facebook page has been that of an alligator that escaped from the local nature preserve and was recently spotted in a pond near the discount Dollar General Store.
The South Jetty has been able to keep operating thanks to small business financial assistance from the federal government, but Henkel Judson says that is not the only reason the paper has been able to survive. She says subscriptions have actually increased of late and even more importantly, advertising revenue has increased, too, despite closures.
"We will get through it," says Henkel Judson. "Newspapers and a free press are absolutely essential to this country. Our readers and our advertisers understand that, that's why they continue to support us."
Pakistan: Imran Khan's government is 'muffling critical voices'
In an interview with DW, Harris Khalique, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that PM Imran Khan's government is undermining the supremacy of parliament and democratic norms.
DW: Local and international media organizations are critical of Prime Minister Imran Khan's government's handling of the media and the freedom of the press situation in Pakistan. What is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's take on it?
Harris Khalique: Pakistan witnessed censorship and curbing of the freedom of expression during military dictatorships. However, such restrictions have never been experienced under a political government that claims to be democratically elected. Even if there are questions around the manipulation of the 2018 general elections, the current government can still be seen as a product of a continuous electoral process that was restored in 2008.
We believe that the muffling of critical voices and systematic suppression of political dissent under the incumbent government is incomparable with any elected government in the past.
How is the incumbent government muzzling the freedom of the press in Pakistan, and how is it different from the tactics used by previous administrations?
The current dispensation is not only constraining independent journalists, columnists and writers, it has also put a financial squeeze on media houses by various means. That has resulted in a number of publications going out of print and a large number of media professionals losing their jobs.
Interviews of opposition leaders are taken off air in the middle of the broadcasts, anchors on news channels are asked to comply with the official narrative, and op-ed writers are regularly censored. There have been multiple attempts to regulate social media with a view to eliminate any difference of opinion.
Are media owners also responsible for the plight of journalists in Pakistan?
There are two types of media owners in Pakistan. Those who fall in the first category are traditional media houses run by journalist-cum-owners. They have tried to put up with the pressure as much as they could.
The other category is large businesses that entered into media and journalism considering it a lucrative industry, which brings influence and political clout. Those belonging to the second category have been more ruthless when dealing with journalists. However, even those falling into the first category have placed their material interests before ethical journalism. Therefore, professional journalists and those who work in their supporting professions are the worst hit in this situation.
Sajid Hussain Baloch's death in Sweden has raised questions about the safety of Pakistani journalists abroad. Reporters Without Borders claims that Baloch's death is related to his work as a journalist. Do you agree?
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) is deeply alarmed by the incident. There is certainly a possibility that Hussain lost his life due to his journalistic work focusing on Balochistan because the Pakistani state has dealt aggressively with those challenging its Balochistan policy. However, since Hussain was found dead in Sweden it is hard to make any conclusive remarks at this juncture until the time Swedish authorities complete their investigation into the matter.
HRCP has raised alarm about the threats to democracy in the country in its 2019 annual report. What are the major threats to democracy in Pakistan and how can its civil society deal with them?
There are a number of events that have taken place, and speeches made by those in power, which proved that Khan's government undermines the supremacy of parliament, ridicules democratic norms and questions provincial autonomy.
Pakistan cannot be at peace with itself without federalism and democracy and will never prosper without encouraging equal citizenship irrespective of class, faith or ethnicity. There is an inherent desire among the ruling elites – civil and military alike – to centralize power and to get rid of the 18th constitutional amendment that has empowered federating units, the provinces.
Both civil and political societies in Pakistan have a responsibility to safeguard the constitution, democracy, federalism and supremacy of parliament by resisting any actions that will be detrimental to the country's integrity and security.
Harris Khalique is the secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a membership-based independent organization.