Media & Journalism, Penn on the World after COVID-19 American Journalism in the World after COVID-19

June 4, 2020
By Trudy Rubin | Penn on the World after COVID-19

Penn on the World after COVID-19 is a joint project of Penn Global and Perry World House. We've asked some of Penn's leading faculty, fellows, and scholars to imagine what the global pandemic will leave in its wake.

Trudy Rubin is the foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and a visiting fellow at Perry World House.

The public’s demand for news, from many platforms, has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, with newspapers and online sites signing up a surge of new subscribers.  Yet, as lockdowns freeze the economy, the near total disappearance of ad revenue threatens to crush the journalism industry, which was already in deep trouble.  Each week brings additional stories of journalists laid off or furloughed, pay cuts in newsrooms, and closures of local papers.

The irony is dramatic: COVID-19 has demonstrated the critical importance not just of local reporting, but national and international coverage, in order to keep an anxious public informed about an urgent global, national and local crisIs.  At the same time, the virus is hastening the death of large segments of American journalism with a few major exceptions, like the thriving New York Times.

The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to find new ways to fund news providers. This is not a new conversation, although the coronavirus has accelerated the contentious topic of government financing for journalism.  Just as with a vaccine, however, the big question is whether, amidst partisan wars and economic meltdown, the cure will arrive in time to save journalism for the world after COVID-19.

The print newspaper industry was already in deep trouble before the onset of the pandemic.  In 2000, at least 55 million American homes subscribed to a daily paper, according to the Pew Research Center, about double what it is today.  More than 1800 newspapers have folded in that time, most of them local weeklies, and U.S. newspaper circulation fell in 2018 to its lowest level since 1940. 

Major newspaper chains, including McClatchy, have declared bankruptcy or merged and shrunk.  Some have been gobbled up by rapacious hedge funds that have slashed staff and gutted once fine newspapers. Nearly all major papers, with the major exception of the New York Times, and to a lesser extent the Washington Post, have eliminated foreign bureaus.

As circulation has plunged, newspaper ad revenue fell from $37.5 billion to $14.3 billion between 2008 and 2018, a 62% decline, according to Pew.  Not surprisingly, newsroom employment dropped by nearly half during that time frame, from about 71,000 workers to 38,000, and is declining even further now.  

This advertising collapse was due not just to the migration of ads to the internet, or the changing fortunes of many large retail advertisers, but to the fact that Facebook and Google have been behaving like a dual monopoly that crushes the news business.  The two companies leach out more than 60% of the $100 billion spent on digital ads each year, carrying content created by news organizations without paying for it.  Yet their rapaciousness is killing the golden goose: the organizations that provide that serious news content.

The decline in print journalism has had a real, direct impact on what citizens can learn about the functioning of their local and state governments, as coverage of mayors, city councils, county officials, and state houses has evaporated.  A 2014 Pew study found that less than a third of newspapers and less than 15% of local TV stations had a full-time statehouse reporter. The situation has only grown worse since then, with most newspapers no longer fielding investigative teams checking on governmental corruption.

And since the pandemic, alternative weeklies and small local papers that have managed to fill coverage holes have been whacked by the collapse in ads and entertainment listings, many of them closing for good.

Before COVID-19, some newspapers found salvation from billionaires including, the Washington Post (Jeff Bezos), Los Angeles Times (Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong) and Philadelphia Inquirer (Gerry Lenfest). But, obviously, this formula has limited applicability.

And the idea of nonprofit ownership has been gaining attention. One much noted example: Lenfest gifted ownership of the for-profit Inquirer to the non-profit Lenfest Institute, which can raise foundation funds and donations for the paper’s projects.

Newspapers will continue to look to philanthropy post-COVID, calling on foundations and individual citizens to recognize that local media – whether paper or online – fill a basic civic need.

The COVID-caused newspaper crunch has also accelerated calls for direct federal and state government stimulus funds to sustain local journalism. Sixteen Democratic senators and some media organizations have proposed direct emergency funds for local news as part of the multi-trillion dollar stimulus packages. The concept is that such monies would go to any public-media platform, or non-profit entity doing civic journalism, but this idea is unlikely to make headway in the current partisan political climate, in which President Trump rails daily at media critics.

There have also been proposals—including from the Annenberg School’s Victor Pickard, who wrote Democracy Without Journalism, and others—to create a large public media trust, independent from government, that could be funded by taxing Facebook and Google or other tax and philanthropic mechanisms.  Again, in the current political climate, such an option is unlikely.

And, even should such a trust be established, true independence would be tricky for any government funded media organization to maintain in an era of polarized politics. Republican administrations regularly try to zero out funds that subsidize public broadcasting, and even the BBC’s funding, from a license fee paid by each TV-owning household, has been challenged. 

Perhaps the most promising option, in near short term, is to force Facebook and Google to pay for content created by traditional media companies.  While both have made token contributions to combat misinformation and help U.S. media outlets, they have so far resisted anti-monopoly pressures in the United States.  However, in the wake of the COVID-caused news crisis, Australia is about to force both digital platforms to pay publishers, with French regulators pressing for the same.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the media crisis, it has also reminded us of the desperate need for fact-based media. Conspiracy-based websites and cable news are all too eager to fill the vacuum if quality journalism is silenced. In the world after COVID-19, we will soon see whether the means can be found to keep it alive.

The views expressed in Penn on the World after COVID-19 posts are solely the author’s and not those of Penn, Penn Global or Perry World House.