As we navigate through the coronavirus crisis, Americans everywhere are looking for relevant and accurate information. Rumors and misinformation run rampant throughout social media at a time when people need reliable information more than ever.
Local news organizations across the country are stepping up. However, our ability to continue to do so is at serious risk due to outdated regulations that hamper their ability to compete combined with the immediate economic impacts from the COVID-19 crisis. The consequences are especially pronounced in smaller markets like Gainesville, where I am the general manager of WCJB-TV.
The critical role that local news is fulfilling during these challenging times is already evident. While national news lets us see the president speak, only our local outlets report on important updates from Gov. Ron DeSantis, or meetings of our local legislators and municipal governments.
Reporters, producers and staff have been working around the clock since this crisis began to provide everyone in North Central Florida with the information they need to survive. Stories about the virus’s effects on our residents’ lives, our public health systems and our local economy are critically relevant to our community.
Given the trust that our viewers have been putting in us for going on 50 years, we are dedicated to running an advanced operation with top-notch staff, sophisticated broadcast infrastructure and vital technologies like closed captioning for our hearing-impaired viewers – as are many other critical local outlets across Florida.
To put it bluntly, this is an expensive undertaking. And, in recent years, we have had to compete with likes of Facebook and Google for critical ad revenue to help pay for it. While we understand that an advertiser has the right to choose its platform of choice, it’s important to recognize that these tech behemoths are generally unregulated, while local broadcasters face significant regulatory burdens.
To make matters worse, the current economic crisis is taking a huge toll on the local businesses that we and other local media outlets count on for reliable ad revenue. While the recent aid package Congress passed will help these businesses stay afloat, it won’t prevent big cutbacks to ad budgets that directly impact news outlets like ours. This is where Congress can fill the void.
The four top national media organizations, representing thousands of local news organizations including ours, called on Congress to act now. The two ways Congress can offer immediate support is by ensuring news organizations are eligible to seek relief through the Paycheck Protection Program and purchasing advertising inventory from local media for federal advertisements or announcements.
Throughout the years, various federal agencies routinely have paid for ads on our station and local broadcast stations across the country to get their messages out. The federal government should purchase ads now to ensure that local stations can continue to disseminate the vitally important news and information that viewers need during this pandemic.
We understand that every business in America is facing hardship right now. We’re asking for change, not sympathy. We also need regulators to recognize the long-term and near-term challenges facing businesses like ours – which provide an essential service to residents – and to give us the freedom to structure our businesses for greater scale and efficiency.
The importance of local journalism cannot be overstated. People need to know what is going on in their community. At WCJB-TV, we’ve been proud to serve North Central Florida since 1971, and that public service mission is always magnified during times of crisis, when our audience needs us the most.
While the pandemic has created exceptional hardships for everyone in our region, we are confident that we will make it through stronger than ever. All we ask is that the federal government recognize the essential work local news organizations like us are doing to support our communities.
Alan Chatman is vice president and general manager of WCJB-TV.