US lawmakers renew push to grant assistance to local news outlets affected by coronavirus pandemic

A man reads the newspaper on the sidewalk in Brooklyn, New York, on March 31, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Thousands of local US newspapers and broadcast outlets, grappling with a massive downturn in advertising because of the Covid-19 pandemic, would be eligible for financial help under legislation introduced in Congress on Wednesday (May 13).

A bipartisan US Senate proposal of Democrats Maria Cantwell, Amy Klobuchar, Chuck Schumer and Republicans John Boozman and Joni Ernst would provide news outlets emergency assistance under the Paycheck Protection Programme (PPP).

Some smaller outlets qualified for PPP assistance in April.

The new proposal would help thousands more that were excluded because their parent companies were too large.

A similar effort to help local news outlets is part of a proposed US$3 trillion (S$4.26 trillion) relief bill introduced on Tuesday by Democrats in the US House of Representatives. Senate Republicans do not support the large spending Bill, but majorities in both houses have signed letters urging additional support for local media.

Since March, local newspapers have lost as much as 50 per cent of advertising revenue, while the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) says some local broadcasters have reported as much as a 90 per cent loss in advertising revenues. This year, NAB estimates advertising losses for local TV and radio broadcasters will reach at least US$3 billion.

NAB CEO Gordon Smith said in a statement, "hometown broadcasters and community newspapers are providing vital news and information during these unprecedented times to keep families and communities safe, while struggling with record advertising revenue losses".

Tens of thousands of local media workers are being forced to take unpaid furloughs or pay cuts. Some outlets are reducing the frequency of printing. Others are closing.

Many news organisations were hurting before the pandemic.

Employment at US newsrooms fell 25 per cent from 2008 to 2018, the Pew Research Centre reported, a loss of 28,000 jobs, while 1,800 US newspapers have closed since 2004.

Last month, four groups representing broadcasters and newspapers, including the NAB, asked lawmakers to support up to US$10 billion in government advertising and to rewrite PPP rules.

"This legislation is so important because just like any other small business, access to this federal funding could be a vital lifeline for local news outlets that are losing major advertising revenue and suffering huge financial losses," said Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader.

Outlets under the Senate Bill are eligible as long as their individual physical locations have fewer than 1,000 employees for newspapers and less than US$41.5 million in gross receipts for broadcasters. The funding must go into producing local news or emergency information and keep local reporters and those who support them employed.

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