Coronavirus could kill —or resuscitate newspapers

Eric Berger is an associate editor with the St. Louis Jewish Light.

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

If I were a coach talking with a locker room full of local print journalists, here is what I would tell them: “This is our last, best shot.”

This coronavirus pandemic poses a grave threat to newspapers, many of which were already teetering on the brink of collapse, because other businesses will also struggle and won’t buy advertisements.

It also provides an opportunity to show people who hadn’t previously supported local newspapers the vital role they play in a democratic society.

If we can’t show people why we are important now, we’ll never be able to. The decline of newspapers will only become more rapid.

Just as some people saw the election of President Donald Trump as a crisis moment and decided to subscribe to The New York Times and the Washington Post, perhaps fears around the coronavirus will motivate more people to support news organizations like the Jewish Light or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Please don’t mistake this wish for opportunism. I hope that the coronavirus goes away as quickly as possible. 

But in the meantime, local journalists have an opportunity to show people why we do we what we do even though we don’t get paid the big bucks. There are already fewer of us. From 2004 to 2018, almost 1,800 local newspapers closed in the United States, according to a report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

No matter how many reporters the Times, the Post, NPR and CNN deploy across the country, the people who were already on the ground in St. Louis and Sheboygan are the ones best positioned to document how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives in their community. 

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They know which city officials and hospital administrators to talk with to get the quickest answers as to which hospitals are full. They know who to talk with if they aren’t getting straight answers.

They know which restaurant owners have been serving the same hamburger for 40 years but are now worried they won’t be able to reopen once it’s safe. 

They know which teachers can’t sleep at night because they are worried about how their students are faring at home. 

They know which adult children are asking staff at nursing homes to help their parents use FaceTime so they can at least see their faces, even if they can’t give them a hug. 

They know which doctors are spending 24 hours straight at the hospital, away from their families, and perhaps at risk to themselves because they know that they are helping to save lives. 

They know which pastors and rabbis are trying to make the best of funerals with nine people in attendance when there would normally have been 200.

Without these journalists, we will be left with only a toxic stew of misinformation on social media.

I have in recent years said to friends that I think print newspapers could someday make a comeback. Who would have thought 20 years ago that people in their 20s and 30s would be buying albums on vinyl? Who would have thought then that people in that age range would now be talking about podcasts that resemble radio murder mysteries from the 1940s?

Perhaps the same thing can happen with newspapers. These next couple months will likely be filled with moments of sadness, strangeness and bravery. It’s up to us to tell those stories and remind people why newspapers used to be the first place people turned to for information in moments of crisis.