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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted and drained our economy, our health care system, our educational system – and the way that news is gathered and reported

Image courtesy of Steve Klamkin

Steve Klamkin, a reporter, anchor and host for WPRO, at the State House. He is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

By Steve Klamkin
Posted 5/11/20
The need to know what is happening with the coronavirus pandemic continues to be great, but the actual local news gathering enterprises are shrinking.
Who are you going to believe and trust about the importance of wearing a mask in public? What are the stories that the news media is still consistently missing when covering the coronavirus pandemic? Did the owners of The Providence Journal make a huge mistake by not selling the newspaper to local bidders in 2014? What are the manufacturing industries in Rhode Island most at risk for becoming hot spots for the transmission of the coronavirus? How has the ability of different news outlets to be heard asking good questions at the Governor’s daily briefing changed the public’s perception of the news media in Rhode Island?
It was strange to hear President Trump publicly discount the need for a vaccine, when he again proclaimed as recently as Friday, May 8, that the coronavirus will simply disappear, downplaying the need for testing, still refusing to wear a mask in public, even as more members of his White House team have tested positive for the virus, even as the current death count hit 78,767 on Saturday, May 9.
The high level of denial belies an even higher level of anxiety, it seems. Given the President’s proclivity to make up his own facts and continually lie and distort the historical record, it becomes incumbent upon the news media to tell the truth, not in some kind of objective, equal-handed manner, such as the President says this, and here’s what others say, but simply to report, accurately, that the President and his team are lying.
Telling the truth about such lying becomes more difficult if local newspapers, TV, and radio stations are owned by mega-corporations that have a definitive political tilt, such as Sinclair.
As Gov. Raimondo urged at a recent news briefing, “Facts not frenzy.”
The critical issue is not to get distracted by those fomenting debate on the airwaves about when and how golf courses or restaurants open up for businesses, or whether residents have the right not to wear masks in public. It should be about reporting on the best way to preserve the lives of Rhode Islanders, wherever they may live.

PROVIDENCE – It seems strange, trying to imagine a future media landscape in the midst of a pandemic that has dominated the headlines for weeks, yet has relentlessly drained many outlets of the people needed to credibly cover the biggest story in years.

Even before the societal shutdown necessitated by the novel coronavirus in early March, “the news media” in its traditional form has been in a long, downward spiral, with many newspapers folding, the consolidation of numerous broadcast stations, and the sprouting of online outlets recognizing the public’s lasting desire for information, especially in their own backyard.

We want our news, but not necessarily in the traditional forms we’ve come to know. We want it when we want it, and in the palm of our hand, thank you.

Yet in this age of attacks against the media, it bears pointing out that a mainstay of the traditional news media is reliable, verifiable information, based upon facts and sources not always found in posts on social media.

Hardly a day goes by without word of layoffs of news reporters, columnists and broadcasters, or furloughs or other steps taken by company owners, like any business, to figure out a way to survive what looks to be an indeterminate future.

News outlets are, after all, businesses, subject to the same pressures as any other, and when society closes down, they are every bit as affected as the coffee shop, restaurant, car dealership or office.

The New York Times estimated that since the start of the pandemic, more than 33,000 worker in the news industry had lost their jobs, been furloughed or were subjected to pay cuts. [See link below to story, “News Media Outlets Have Been Ravaged by the Pandemic.”]

Even the largest national newspapers, financially healthy with thriving subscriber bases are asking whether they can keep the news staffs that they have assembled.

On a steep decline
What has the situation been before the pandemic? Many people may not realize how the news industry has devolved, even before the pandemic, often in ways that produced reductions in staff and strained relations with organized labor both inside and out of the newsroom.

Many newspapers, already strapped for cash amid the loss of lucrative classified advertising long lost to the Internet and sharply declining display advertising, made deep cuts to staff, sold off valuable real estate and teamed with other papers to contract for printing and home delivery operations.

Many television news operations had long consolidated technical operations, making use of robotic cameras, equipping reporters with lightweight cameras, employing fewer photojournalists in favor of “video journalists” – those who report, shoot, edit and present their stories on-air.

All this made the virtual evacuation of newspaper and television and radio newsrooms easier, when the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 virtually shut down many office operations, leaving reporters, editors, producers, executives and most others working from home.

In the case of radio stations, many that were not already automated sent talk show hosts and newscasters to work from home.

The future news biz
What is the media landscape of the future going to look like? There are efforts to help prop up the ailing news industry, but whether they will come with strings attached has yet to be determined.

Facebook has grown to become one of the world’s largest corporations, valued at over $600 billion dollars. The advertising giant has come under sharp criticism and has come to recognize its role in displacing many of these media outlets. It responded by forming its “Facebook Journalism Project,” which is making tens of millions of dollars in grant monies available to local media outlets, small and large, to try to ensure their continued survival during the pandemic.

Some members of Congress are urging help for the battered news industry. [See link below to story, “Democratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus.]

Indeed, Congress is considering government financial support to keep news outlets from failing, saying a national plan is needed to save news industry jobs and to keep a free press from folding up. [See link below to story, “The free press initiative seeks solutions for local journalism.”]

Notwithstanding foreign efforts to undermine confidence in government and news outlets, the relative danger of news organizations ceding their independence to Internet giants and others seems small, however.

We may see fewer independent news organizations, with smaller, yet more overworked staffs. That said, it’s hard to imagine those newsrooms populated with people who aren’t going to question authority, who aren’t going to dig beyond government pronouncements, who don’t relish coming up with a “scoop.”

Fewer people than ever before welcome the “thud” of a newspaper on their doorstep, but more and more people are reaching for their phones or other devices for their alerts or other news.

Judging by calls to the newsrooms at television stations and newspapers and to talk radio during the pandemic, people want to know what to expect as rules change and life begins returning to the way it was before the shutdown.

The need to know is great, and not likely to diminish anytime soon.

Steve Klamkin, a reporter, anchor and host for WPRO, is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI. Two of his more recent stories are included in the related links.

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