Journalism in Central America helped communities weather the pandemic | Covid-19


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William Thomas Mari, Louisiana State University

(THE CONVERSATION) News of the pandemic’s devastating effect on journalism has been carried by headlines across the country recounting newsroom closings, layoffs and time off.

Journalism was struggling in 2020. In fact, it had been struggling for some time.

But how have so many local news agencies – especially newspapers – managed to survive the pandemic? Weekly newspapers have increased their daily coverage of online news, business models have exploded, and the existing justifications for which journalism issues have become more than theoretical for rural journalists.

Their determination to survive and serve as a lifeline for the public health of their communities fueled an oral history project that my colleague Teri Finneman and I led, interviewing 28 journalists in seven central states of the country. We learned how local and family newspapers survived COVID-19.

“There were times when we had to contact mayors and different towns and communities across the state… to make sure that… knew that [journalists] were considered essential workers, ”said Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association. This label exempted journalists from stay-at-home orders and designated them as essential to their communities.

There were no easy answers. Not in Louisiana, where I teach journalism at Louisiana State University. Not just anywhere.

Tell a story

Oral history captures the first impressions of history for those living today, thinking back to what just happened. It helps people understand the present and how to get out of a crisis. But it also records events for academics and citizens in the future.

“Always remember that when you publish these stories in your journal, you are printing the history of your community,” Amy Johnson, editor of the Springview Herald in Nebraska told us.

Benny Polacca of Osage News in Oklahoma told us something similar: to report or research the time of COVID-19. “

Often it is coastal journalism that catches the attention of researchers. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times – these big news agencies are the subject of constant reporting.

By talking to reporters from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, our project pushed back this tendency to ignore the nation’s background and its surroundings. important journalism. As a new kind of essential worker, journalists found themselves tasked with explaining the complicated guidelines from state and local authorities on COVID-19, how schools would operate and where to go for help.

“I hope that through this, our role as a journalist, they [the public] realize how important it is that the information we put out, you know, how it affects them every day, ”Johnson said.

Kansas Press Association Executive Director Emily Bradbury had a message for those journalists who worked for news outlets increasingly threatened with closure: “I want them to know that in the midst of an emergency, in the midst of an emergency, in the midst of what can seem like a dire situation, when they look at their finances, that what they do is important. And what they do is important, and that no one else can do what they do, and they look after their communities like no one else.

Loans, ancillary activities and transactions

Journalists and editors have found new ways to pay the bills. This meant accepting government grants in the form of paycheck protection program loans. This meant, for some, going door-to-door and asking readers to subscribe, or continue to subscribe. This involved consolidating newspapers, publishing more editions online, or cutting wages.

“People just don’t understand. It costs a lot of money and time to do it, and I just wish we – there was more value or people appreciate it or understand the value and cost of really providing this service, ”said Bonita Gooch. , the publisher of The Community Voice. , a black newspaper based in Wichita, Kansas.

Some publishers have gone to great lengths to generate income, by creating advertising copy for local businesses or by doing marketing.

At the Kingfisher Times & Free Press in Oklahoma, for example, Christine Reid, the newspaper’s editor, created ads for a local vocational and technical school. “I also tried using this as a way to… generate more ads for the newspaper,” Reid said.

Some newspapers have advertising deals with local businesses, with consumers shopping more locally.

Local publishers have done everything to stay afloat. As some of our early findings have shown, this showed both an opportunity and a reluctance to change.

“We’re going to have to rely less on ad revenue and more on subscription revenue, so we have to make sure we’re delivering a unique product that they want to pay for,” said Letti Lister, president and publisher. from the Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, South Dakota.

We have seen signs of hope, as journalists garnered financial and moral support from their readers in a turbulent election. “On the contrary, it has rallied the troops, if you will, in our community because they trust us, they know that we will report the news in a timely manner and keep the public informed,” said Amy Wobbema, editor. . of the New Rockford transcript in North Dakota. Arguably, most of the blankets were calm and even.

But there were still hesitations about what newspapers should do to adapt. Some journalists are uncomfortable with the idea of ​​receiving government funding and would prefer to rely on community support.

As the executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, Dave Bordewyk, put it, “Kind of like, ‘Look, contribute to our newspaper… that’s gone.

Ultimately, the pandemic showed that more research needs to be done on journalism in rural areas – we have only managed to speak to a fraction of the total number of small town journalists and editors. Other academics have already learned that local journalism helps reduce violent partisanship and strengthens institutions. To be clear, researchers have defined violent partisanship as the willingness to resort to physical altercations to resolve differences – good local journalism channels this energy towards peaceful and democratic ends. Other researchers have found that institutions such as courts and local governments gain increased legitimacy because of local news. Further scientific attention will likely reveal other benefits that the public is not yet aware of.

“This is what we hope for. What I hope will come out of this is that the readers can understand this, and can… have a renewed value on what it is. [local] publication did for their community during this pandemic, ”Bradbury told us.

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