As hunger for news goes up, revenue loss crushes local media


This pandemic has many people glued to the news, but as readership and viewership numbers increase, news organizations throughout the country are being financially stripped.

With so many businesses shut down and sports and other events cancelled, fewer people are buying ads, a main driver of revenue for most media organizations.

The New York Times reports at least 33,000 workers at news companies across the country have been laid off, furloughed, or had their pay reduced.

Some news companies have closed for good, including three community newspapers in Southern California: Burbank Leader, the Glendale News-Press and the La Cañada Valley Sun.

Large newspapers like the LA Times have furloughed staff, trimmed the salaries of high-level managers and editors, and consolidated their print sections.

Small community papers are also facing layoffs and pay cuts.

“The coronavirus has impacted our paper completely,” says Marianne Partridge, editor-in-chief at the Santa Barbara Independent. “Our advertising revenue has dropped by over half. It reflects the very tough situation in the business and arts community. It's devastating.”

Newspapers and alt-weeklies like the Independent rely heavily on local advertising, which is why they’re among the first news organizations to announce major financial hardship.

Television stations often sell ads to larger businesses like car dealerships, restaurant chains and prescription drug companies who have deeper pockets and can still sell their goods, albeit online or curbside.

But TV isn’t completely immune. Sports are a big driver of TV ads, so stations like ESPN, NBC, and CBS are getting hit hard. According to the digital research firm eMarketer, TV ad spending overall will be down between $7.5 and 10 billion compared to last year.

Public radio stations rely on both advertising and listener support, so organizations like KCRW are leaning on pledge drives more than ever before.

“Half of our revenue comes from underwriting, which is made up of performing arts venues and other ticketed events that are right now at a complete standstill,” says Jennifer Ferro, president of KCRW. “So we're bracing for a continued slowdown in the economy that could have lasting effects.”

Ironically, while revenue is down, the hunger for news and engagement is up. 

KCRW’s website traffic from February to March was up 25% compared to that same time frame last year, and social posts got 200% more clicks than last year.

“I think it's very clear to the public now how valuable good, clear, local information is,” says Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at USC. “And it is, I think, a duty of every citizen to step up and support these organizations, because particularly in times like this, we understand the value of having verified responsible professional news organizations holding public health authorities to account and performing a vital, essential service.”

Kahn likens news organizations to your electricity provider or the people who repair your roads. He says it’s difficult for life to function well without local news coverage to help everyone understand the issues that their community is facing. 

“There's been a decent amount of research on what happens to a community once local coverage dries up or disappears. Usually the local government's borrowing costs go up because you no longer have a news organization holding accountable a local government,” says Kahn.

“Local businesses also suffer, and there's some more subtle changes that also take place, because what local news really does is allow a community to have a conversation with itself. That's one of those things that you might not realize how essential it is until it's gone.”