Friday, May 29, 2020

Government advertising related to census, pandemic and other public-health concerns could save local newspapers

Amid the debate over various means of government support for local news media comes a simple suggestion from Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America and a leader of Rebuild Local Media, a campaign that advocates for locally owned and nonprofit community news.

Waldman suggests that "a big chunk" of the $1 billion the federal government spends each year on advertising, for such things as military recruitment and public health campaigns, should go to local news media, with less going to national TV, cable networks or social media. And he says the advertising budget should be increased to help blunt covid-19 and boost the census.

"Stopping the pandemic requires the dissemination of accurate, trustworthy information," Waldman writes for The Poynter Institute. "That includes a well-functioning local media, but also can include information directly from public health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — in the form of a massive campaign of public health advertising."

The ads could provide general information about social distancing, but also local information about business and recreation openings and where to get tested for the coronavirus. Health experts say widespread testing, with tracing of the contacts of people who test positive, is essential to containing the virus until the advent of a widely available vaccine or an effective treatment.

The federal government is doing general advertising, but it hasn't helped local news media much "because many have gone through the nonprofit Ad Council and have been aired by media organizations for free," Waldman notes. "At a time when local news systems are collapsing, the government shouldn’t expect local news organizations to run these ads without compensation."

There's another reason this is a good time for federal advertising. "The pandemic has hobbled the U.S. Census Bureau’s ambitious plans for door-to-door canvassing," Waldman writes. "They should spend $500 million to plaster local media with ads urging Americans to sign up. Military recruitment efforts have stalled and will need a jump-start soon. . . . Other government ad campaigns tell students how to get loan forgiveness or the working poor how to qualify for the earned income tax credit. These government functions will need greater publicity, too."

Would Congress approve such spending at a time of political polarization and attacks on the news media? Waldman notes that polls show that local media are "more popular (and trusted) than national media. Since the government is already spending money on advertising, this won’t be (just) about spending new money. Since these campaigns have other public purposes, it’s not (mostly) about helping local media." He notes that the Canadian government is running $30 million in advertising about covid-19 to help local media.

Sample-copy extra paid for by local governments
What about the argument that local media, especially newspapers, no longer reach most people? Waldman doesn't address this, but most local newspapers still reach a large percentage of the households in their home market; and postal regulations allow them to send every household in their home county a newspaper at the same postal rate for subscribers, up to 10 percent of the paper's annual mailings.

Smart newspapers use this "sample copy" power not only to attract new subscribers, but to reach readers with public-service information, such as special sections on health and wellness, supported by health-care advertising that pays for the extra printing and postage of sample copying. In Kentucky, local governments have sponsored special editions of newspapers with covid-19 information.

Waldman says safeguards would be needed "to prevent political interference, which sometimes happens on the local level." The best solution for that might be to require the advertising to be pro-rated among local competitors based on their Nielsen ratings and "bona fide circulation," a term many states use to determine which paper gets local public notices.

And what about the understandable wariness about government subsidy of newspapers? Governments have been indirectly subsidizing newspapers for centuries, through public-notice advertising -- which many journalists don't realize is the third leg of a stool also supported by open-records and open-meetings laws -- and by favorable postal rates for in-county circulation. The latter is a service to local democracy and literacy; the former is a transaction in which the government and its taxpayers pay for, and get, something of value. It's an arm's-length trade, with no quid pro quo.

Waldman sees another possible complication: "If the spending goes to local media strictly on the basis of audience size, most would go to local TV stations and newspaper chains owned by hedge funds." That's an exaggeration, but he has a point. His solution: "Half of the local share should go to locally-owned and nonprofit news media. This would help minority-owned newspapers, nonprofit websites, public radio stations, weekly papers, rural news organizations and other locally-owned or nonprofit newsrooms." (Rural newspapers are more likely to be locally owned.)

Waldman concludes, "Like the postal subsidy that helped create the newspaper industry in the 19th century, these kinds of broad formulaic policy approaches have been the most effective ways of helping news media without corrupting the free press." He's right, and a different time calls for some different approaches while following historical precedent. Challenges create opportunities.
--Al Cross, director and professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

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