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How to Save Independent Local Media

Local media outlets exhausted by pandemic-induced financial stresses may fall under the control of oligarchs or repressive governments that strip them of their independence. Six steps can help to prevent this outcome and put smaller news organizations on a sound long-term footing.

WASHINGTON, DC – In 2021, the world will start to recover from COVID-19, thanks to unprecedented scientific cooperation and global vaccination efforts. Economies will emerge from the crisis, and communities will begin the long road back to “normal.” But it won’t be the old normal: Some job functions will be lost, and entire industries will disappear forever. We must not allow independent media to be one of them.

The pandemic has underscored the role that local media play in relaying critical information regarding people’s health and livelihoods. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2020 Digital News Report, local newspapers and their websites in the surveyed countries are the top source of news about a particular town or region and reach four in ten people weekly. During the pandemic, local media have helped to inform communities about basic preventive hygiene practices, testing sites, and vaccination procedures. They have provided citizens with lifesaving information and debunked conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus and vaccines.

When anxiety about the virus increases, media consumption rises as well. But according to IREX’s annual Media Sustainability Index, higher media consumption in Eastern Europe has not led to higher revenues. In Georgia and Serbia, for example, local media readership has risen considerably before and during the pandemic, but advertising revenues continue to decline. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the media advertising market has shrunk by about 60% in the last ten years, according to local estimates.