To be honest, it never occurred to me I would be president of CNPA (California News Publishers Association, and without a journalism pedigree, writing a column seems ... weird. But my entire 21 years in the newspaper business has been bloody well full of unexpected turns.
I went from London ad agency guy to camera store owner to account executive to publisher of two Media News Group community papers in Hermosa and Palos Verdes as well as Gazette Newspapers in Long Beach. In the process, every ounce of this Englishman’s 6-foot, 7-inch frame became immersed in our fascinating business.
I had planned to write about the incredible work that people in our industry put in — big market and small, metro daily, rural community and ethnic — to report news, inform communities and deliver something new and interesting every week, every day. But a funny thing happened on the way to this edition. A pandemic made its way to California (and the nation) and all my lofty ideas about what we do and the roles we play turned to dire thoughts about whether our businesses will continue to exist to do them.
So I want to address this column to the legislative, municipal and business leaders in our state and plead with them to help us — all members of the CNPA — stay on the job to help our communities push through and ahead.
In many California communities, local newspapers are facing COVID-19-related challenges that are life-threatening. Advertising revenues are declining as businesses close their doors. In turn, local news publishers are struggling to get vital news to their readers.
In today’s public health crisis, journalism shows why it is indispensable. Our publications are delivering vital health services to readers of every age, race and religion. We are a credible source of information about all things COVID-19.
Our reporters are on the front lines fact checking, verifying and authenticating so that what the public “hears,” the public can believe.
Our information-gathering and reporting do not discriminate. We dig long and hard to deliver accuracy and context, lynchpins in the chain of logic needed to spur public action. We connect with every audience on doorsteps, desktops and mobile devices.
We also deliver medicine for the soul. Hope and resolve can be found in the storylines we follow and feature. You can savor tales about novel ways neighbors are adapting to the times. You can read about the wonder of human persistence and kindness in adverse times.
You can applaud the courage — and the victories — of the soldiers in the fight against the virus. You can watch as neighborhoods, towns, cities and states heal and repair.
But this kind of “keeping-us-alive” journalism is endangered. The financial lifeblood of news publishing businesses is being wiped out by the pandemic. Many community newspapers have had to drastically reduce their circulation or frequency in an attempt to stay in business, and many have closed their doors.
Even the largest publications — papers of record like the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Orange County Register — are straining to fulfill their obligations.
A survey of newspapers reveals the extent of the “illness” our members are experiencing. As much as 70% of advertising revenue has evaporated with heartbreaking job losses for reporters, freelancers, delivery contractors, and production and sales employees.
But the effect is even more devastating when we consider the community consequences. According to the Pew Research Center, 4 in 5 Americans say they trust news gathered by local journalists who are “personally engaged” in their community. Ironically, we could lose those sources of pandemic information during the very time when they are utterly essential to public health, welfare and security.
Longer range, and more sobering perhaps, is the impact that these pandemic-spread financial illnesses could have on our democracy. If we let local news sources die off, we will imperil the democratic vitality of communities that rely on us to provide a record of our present and a compass to our future.
Finally, few in U.S. society would argue that a free and accessible press is not just important to democracy. It is democracy. One of the critical agents of this principle is print media — and like the U.S. population, we are threatened by the COVID-19 virus.
We’ve all heard the phrase that journalism is the first draft of history. I hope the draft of the chapter on 2020 will feature the critical role that newspapers played in coping with the pandemic rather than succumbing to it.
Simon Grieve is president of the California News Publishers Association. This column first appeared in the California Publisher magazine.