Utah’s Congress members ask President Trump to help save local news

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The City Weekly owner and publisher John Saltas stands in an empty newsroom, April 1, 2020. Saltas instituted furloughs on his staff on March 27, and estimates the editorial staff is about half of what it was at its peak. The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on many small news-gathering organizations, such as alt-weeklies and free community newspapers.

Washington • Utah’s House members and more than 200 of their colleagues are urging President Donald Trump to help local news outlets that are crucial to informing the public during the pandemic but suffering because of a precipitous drop in advertising during the crisis.

In a letter to Trump, GOP Reps. Rob Bishop, John Curtis and Chris Stewart and Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams ask that the president direct the government to buy ads in local media outlets for new and existing programs and encourage businesses receiving relief funds to spend money on ads themselves.

“Local news and information on radio, television and newsprint is more in demand than ever, yet local media outlets are experiencing catastrophic losses in the advertising revenue that allows them to continue investing in providing that news to the public,” the letter, signed by nearly 250 members of the House, says. “This national emergency has caused a near halt to local business activity and in turn, the regular and vital advertising they purchase from local media. Without advertising revenue, local media outlets cannot survive.”

The letter notes that during an emergency such as now, the public turns to local news outlets for vital information, and “it is critical now more than ever that these local news and media outlets stay afloat.”

As businesses have shuttered because of stay-at-home guidance and, in some cases, orders, advertising dollars to radio, TV and newspaper outlets have shriveled, leading to severe cuts to an industry already facing an economic downturn.

That includes outlets across Utah.

After 15 years in operation, the Gunnison Valley Gazette printed its final edition last week. The alternative City Weekly in Salt Lake City has seen its ad revenue — mostly driven by now-closed bars, restaurants and events — dry up. The City Journals scattered across the Salt Lake Valley, likewise, felt a “sizable decrease” in ads.

While there is no money earmarked for the news industry in the $2.2 trillion relief bill Congress passed in March, some news outlets, including The Salt Lake Tribune, have sought help under programs aimed at propping up small businesses.

The House letter says more may be needed.

“Government alone cannot get the information out to all of our constituents,” said Stewart, a Utah Republican and one of the 243 signatories on the letter to Trump. “Local media outlets are our partners in delivering Utah residents critical information, especially in times of crisis.”

Adds McAdams: “Local media has high levels of trust and reach within communities, and often can report on the most up-to-date information for each state and locality.

“During this public health crisis, precise messages provide the public with the information and trust they need to evaluate risk and act accordingly,” the congressman continued.

As a former mayor of Provo and in his current office, Curtis has seen "the critical role that local broadcasting plays to ensure Utahns are informed,” said Curtis’ spokeswoman Ally Riding. “Many would prefer to hear from a local outlet than a national one — and even more so in times such as these.”

The letter specifically asks Trump to direct his Cabinet to find any government resources intended to be used for advertising campaigns and expedite those efforts; order federal agencies with money set aside for community outreach to spend it with local media, especially those serving minority and rural areas; and work to incentivize businesses receiving government relief funds to buy advertising with the local outlets.

The White House has yet to comment on the House letter, though Trump has lambasted the news media throughout his time in office.

A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists found that Trump’s attacks on the news media have harmed American democracy and led to other countries adopting or boosting anti-press efforts. The president frequently assailed stories and TV coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news” even as he now holds nearly daily news conferences to take questions from reporters.