By Matt DeRienzo • LMA Consultant
The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century type of story, and gaps in local information and accountability journalism could have life and death consequences. Yet the local news organizations across the country doing this work face an immediate threat from the economic crisis that is accompanying the outbreak. Advertising and event revenues have plummeted, and in many cases, disappeared entirely. Some local newspapers have suspended print publication; others are cutting print days. Some are turning to layoffs and furloughs while the need for strong journalism about the crisis is in extreme demand.
Now readers are stepping up in an unprecedented way to support their work.
A fundraising program developed by Local Media Association is enabling local news organizations to accept tax-deductible donations to support coverage of the pandemic, using its Local Media Foundation as a 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor.
Within hours of launching custom COVID-19 Local News Fund donation pages, hundreds of readers had donated more than $17,000 to half a dozen local publishers. More than 100 other local news organizations are set to join them this week. A webinar with information on how to participate in the program is scheduled for noon EST on Monday (April 5).
“My grandmother absolutely loved the AFRO. We had it in our house every Tuesday and Friday and read it from cover to cover,” a donor wrote on the fundraising page of Baltimore’s historic Afro-American newspaper, including a picture of her grandmother with the message.
In Georgia, more than 50 people had contributed to the Newnan Times-Herald’s COVID-19 coverage fundraiser within two days of launch. “Thank you so much for reporting in Coweta County and for your tireless efforts to keep our community updated in the midst of this crisis,” wrote one reader who gave $50.
Contributions have ranged from $25 to a check for $2,000 that one reader wrote to the Moultrie News in South Carolina.
For most publishers participating in the program, it’s the first time they’ve ever asked for support in this way. Many who have digital subscription programs have removed their paywall for articles about the COVID-19 crisis, which accounts for most of local news organizations’ coverage right now.
“The coronavirus crisis has brought local economies to near standstill, and advertising along with them. That new financial challenge means our scrappy publishing business must fight for survival while continuing to provide important local news and information as a public service during this unprecedented crisis,” Adam Stone, publisher of a group of family-owned newspapers in New York’s Westchester and Putnam counties, wrote in his appeal for donations. “If you believe local news and information is critical, especially during this crisis, please donate to help keep us on the job. Contributions to this fund will help pay for news resources to cover the impact of the virus on our local communities, information on testing sites, which businesses are open, and more.”
LMA is a leader in local media business model transformation and sustainability. Its members in the U.S. and Canada represent more than 3,000 local newspapers, TV and radio broadcasters, online news sites and research & development partners.
The COVID-19 Local News Fund is among several LMA initiatives aimed at strengthening philanthropic support for local journalism. It helped administer the Facebook Journalism Project’s recent emergency COVID-19 coverage $5,000 grant program. And later this spring, it will launch NewsFuel, a Google News Initiative-supported platform that will help match news organizations with grants and other funding opportunities.
“This program, led by the Local Media Foundation, will increase coverage of COVID-19 issues in local communities,” said Local Media Association CEO Nancy Lane. “We can’t think of anything more important at this moment. As media company revenues are decimated, like many other businesses right now, community funding will go a long way for small publishers to continue reporting on this crisis and the local impact.”
Matt DeRienzo is a Local Media Association consultant.