US government should stand up for local news

The time capsule held for 50 years in the cornerstone of WWNY-TV/7 News sits on a table inside the television station in October waiting to be opened. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — If there was ever a time when you needed trustworthy and timely news, this is it.

And a big part of the job falls to local news organizations. It’s a job we at WWNY and WNYF take up gladly; we live here, and we know how important accurate information is.

As general manager of WWNY and WNYF, I would like to share with you how the current crisis has also exposed weaknesses — outdated federal regulations and a general lack of attention from Washington to local media outlets — that make our job harder and the finances for TV stations more challenging.

Local news operations require substantial expenses. We hire, train and maintain our talented staff members, who work long hours to provide critical information, especially COVID-19 related, to our community. At our station alone, we burn through lots of electricity just sending our signal out.

Add to that all the other investments organizations like ours make in technology and infrastructure and, well, you get the picture. Reporting and distributing local news isn’t cheap.

When local news invests, those in our community have access to news that takes you from President Donald Trump and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Watertown Mayor Jeff Smith, county health officials, the leaders at our local hospitals, area small businesses and the men and women who make our community thrive.

Right now, if you want to know how the novel coronavirus is specifically affecting the north country, we are one of your only sources in addition to NNY360.com. Local news can tell you how many local cases of infection there are, how our hospitals are managing, how ordinary Northern New Yorkers are navigating unemployment and, ultimately, how all of the many acts of kindness are binding us together.

We’re able to fund these activities mostly thanks to advertising placed by local businesses. But that’s changing. In recent years, we have seen tech giants like Google and Facebook taking an ever-increasing share of that revenue.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with companies competing for ad dollars. But the federal government asks us to do so with one hand tied behind our back while the tech giants are largely unregulated.

This uneven playing field has always been a problem even in times of economic prosperity. But now that our area and the whole country face a recession, the issue could become acute as local car dealerships, restaurants and retailers — usually major sources of revenue for our stations — are forced to pull back on their advertising.

This is important: We do not expect a handout from the government.

What we need are updated federal regulations to reflect the realities of the modern media landscape. Most immediately, as Congress and the Trump administration work to support essential businesses during this economic crisis through various rescue packages, we need local broadcasters to be a part of that conversation.

Bipartisan proposals are already gaining momentum in Congress, especially following the top four media organizations’ plea to support local media. We urge the federal government to step up and take action to support local media in the next rescue package it passes.

For example, federal agencies routinely advertise on local broadcast stations to get their messages out. Congress should direct the government to place more ads on local stations to fill the void from the local businesses that the government has forced to temporarily shut down. Additionally, local news organizations should have the ability to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program so our stations and many others can continue to produce local news for our communities, particularly during this uncertain time.

We are committed to serving local residents. It is what has been expected of us, and we do it proudly for the north country.

That’s why we are calling on federal lawmakers and the administration to turn their attention to local news organizations like us, serving small cities and towns. We know the resilience of our community. We want to continue to serve the residents of the north country for years to come, which is why we are more passionate than ever about putting policies in place allowing us to do so.

Eric Krebs is vice president and general manager of WWNY/WNYF/MeTV.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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