With declines in advertising revenue devastating news organizations across the country because of the coronavirus pandemic, 14 U.S. Senators have signed a letter urging Senate leaders to specifically “include payroll support for digital-native news professionals in the next COVID-19-related legislation.”
The letter is endorsed by the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, and the WGA East, which represents staffers at online news outlets such as HuffPost, Salon, Slate, Vox Media and Vice Media.
“The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic devastation has rippled out to the news industry,” the senators wrote today in a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles Schumer. “Initial reporting estimated a 51% decline in spending on advertisements over March and April. When Americans stopped shopping, retailers stopped advertising. When Americans quit traveling, airlines and hotels quit advertising.
“This pause in advertising has hurt digital-native news outlets in particular. These organizations rely primarily on advertising revenue to pay the bills. As a result, across the country, news professionals working for digital-native outlets need immediate, temporary federal financial support. Whether through grants, loans, or other systems, the federal government must help ensure these professionals can stay on the job so that Americans do not lose access to reliable news and information.”
The letter, similar to one signed last month by 26 House Democrats, was signed by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who are leading the effort in the Senate, and by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ed Markey (D-MA), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Last month, more than 1,200 members of the WGA East signed a petition calling on Congress to pass immediate financial relief for news-gathering organizations. “It is fair to say that our union, and the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, are the voice of digital journalism on Capitol Hill, and our message is clear: keep digital journalists on the job, on payroll, doing their important work,” said WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson.
“The American people will need reliable sources of information to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic – both to remain healthy and to return to contributing to their local economies,” the senators said in today’s letter. “At this pivotal moment, however, news professionals across all formats are experiencing layoffs and furloughs as a result of the pandemic. Absent immediate, temporary payroll support to weather the pandemic’s impact, more news professionals will lose their jobs at a time when their work is critical for our country.
“Digital-native organizations, just like broadcast television, radio, and newspapers, are vital to the country and local communities. Unfortunately, these organizations cannot access federal support through most current programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program. Digital-native news organizations tend to employ more than 500 people, and, since they exist in cyberspace, their structure is such that a single company often operates multiple, targeted websites. Efforts in Congress to require that the Small Business Administration waive affiliation rules to allow individual newspaper, radio, and television outlets to access funding will offer no relief to digital-native organizations. We support these efforts; however, Congress cannot leave these companies and their workforce of more than 16,000 behind.
“Americans have come to rely on digital-native news organizations. According to the Pew Research Center, the top 37 digital-native sites saw an average of 22 million unique visitors each in the last three months of 2018 alone. People go to these websites to understand how to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, learn what restaurants and other businesses are open in their neighborhoods, and read about economic development in their cities and towns.
“Unless Congress acts, the ability of Americans to turn to these trusted news sources stands to be lost – not because the organizations are inviable in the long term, but because of a catastrophic shock to the entire economy”