Student-journalists in my capstone reporting class at the University of Utah had just pitched ideas for their stories about Salt Lake City’s west-side neighborhoods when all courses abruptly shifted online due to the pandemic.
And then, in mid-March, social-distancing protocols were established for public safety and businesses and organizations closed in short order. Interviews the students had arranged were canceled, and sources could not be reached by phone as more and more people were furloughed or began telecommuting.
Stories evolved accordingly. One student, for example, had planned to profile a Mexican restaurant that opened in the Rose Park neighborhood in 2019. Instead, she used social media to identify and then contact customers of the family-owned business that is now only offering take-out and delivery.
“We are together in this crisis,” a loyal patron told the reporter. “If we don’t support each other, everyone will be affected one way or another.”
The student-journalists in my class faced in a small way the challenges that professional reporters at local and national media outlets are encountering daily while trying to bring the public accurate information about COVID-19.
“Every day journalists are stepping up to cover important stories in their communities, often risking their own health and safety in the process,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in an April press release.
The Salt Lake Tribune is among the daily newspapers providing timely and free access to local news about the coronavirus outbreak. Correspondingly, traffic to SLTrib.com has increased dramatically as people seek updates on how the pandemic is affecting Utahns. One study estimates 8.25 million site visits in March, up from 3.9 million visits in February. The New York Times reports similar spikes in traffic to local news sites across the country, and its own website has seen a 50% increase in readership.
Yet, ironically, stories of layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs at media outlets across the nation and in Europe also abound. The dire economic downturn has further impacted already dwindling advertising revenue and many publications — as well as TV and radio stations — have been hard hit. The Washington Post reported on April 8 that a “tsunami” has swept over newsrooms exactly when “readership and viewership is surging with consumers in search of reliable information about the virus.” From Cleveland to Boston, from Denver to Dallas, from Tampa to Sacramento — the impact on newspapers and “the broader media landscape” has been profound.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported recently on the plight of Salt Lake City Weekly and smaller newsgathering operations in Utah that have been impacted by the sudden loss of ad revenue precipitated by business closures and event cancellations. City Weekly publisher John Saltas told The Tribune that the paper had obtained nonprofit status some years ago, but he had not actively solicited donations from the public — until now.
In October 2019, the Salt Lake Tribune became the first legacy newspaper in the U.S. to transform from a for-profit company to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. This status permits the company to receive donations and also continue to offer print and digital subscriptions.
One of my journalism students reminds us: “Information is key to our democracy. In order to be a civically engaged citizen, we need to be informed.”
When the pandemic is declared over, citizens will continue to need factual information about issues including upcoming elections, economic recovery and employment, and how the federal stimulus funds were distributed. We also will want details about clubs, restaurants and all the events that have been postponed.
If you have pored over The Salt Lake Tribune or avidly read its stories online, tuned in to a local NPR affiliate, or obtained your news from another trusted source in the past weeks, I urge you to contribute what you can afford — with regularity — so news staff can do their jobs well. As two journalists wrote in The Atlantic in March, “Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. And buy a subscription to your local newspaper.”
Kimberley Mangun is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. She studies civil rights and the African-American press, and teaches courses on journalism and communication history.