Local news has long been a reliable, dependable source of information. National stories have too often been grabbing people’s attention. This focus on national news has, at times, come at the expense of valuable reporting being done by local journalists.

But when we face a collective crisis, the most important information we need is local. How many COVID-19 cases are in my community? Where can I get tested? When will schools reopen? What is considered an “essential” business? In this moment, local news publishers are delivering the information that is allowing communities across the country to survive and stay connected to one another.

Unfortunately, the business of local news publishing was in a fragile state before COVID-19, and the immediate and intense contraction in advertising in response to the pandemic has imposed severe financial stress on local news publishers at exactly the moment when the public needs their reporting more than ever.

As an industry, we take our role as independent watchdogs seriously, and we don’t easily ask for government help, even in the midst of a pandemic. But local journalism is at a turning point, and if we want it to survive this crisis – and be available for the next one – we need Congress to step up and offer assistance immediately. The biggest asks for local news right now are:

  • Direct current government advertising dollars to local news publishers and broadcasters, and establishing a large, new government advertising campaign around health, education, and economic development.
  • Change the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) rules to allow more small publishers access to the same lending facilities that are available to other small businesses. The original SBA program restricts newspapers that are part of other newspaper groups or non-news business, unnecessarily penalizing thousands of local newspapers across the country. The SBA needs to treat local publishers that are part of larger groups as independent small businesses, which would grant them access to such aid as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
  • Thirty-three thousand news media employees have been laid off, furloughed, or seen their pay reduced since the coronavirus struck. To address the layoffs and furloughs, Congress should consider additional means to support small publishers and maintain newsroom employment just when we need local journalists the most.
  • Pass legislation that would support local journalism that is already teed up in Congress, including small changes to recently enacted retirement security legislation (SECURE Act).

(The Journalism Competition & Preservation Act would allow publishers to band together to negotiate a better business deal from Google and Facebook.)

Publishers don’t take these requests lightly, and many may view it as counterintuitive for news media companies to turn to the government for assistance, given the role media play in speaking truth to power. But the current situation has proven the essential nature of local news.

Local publishers don’t just keep the public informed about the actions of its leaders – they keep leaders informed about the realities their constituents are facing. Local news reporters have ties to their communities that make them experts on their governments, their leaders, and their neighbors. Local journalists are reporting on a community they’re living in and are experiencing the same things as their audiences every day.

Social media isn’t going to give the public the information it needs right now; local publishers and journalists are, and Congress needs to act to ensure that they don’t disappear just when we need them the most.

Politicians have complained about the media since the founding of the Republic. But the Founding Fathers also understood the value of the press for the American people and that it wasn’t the role of journalists to be liked by politicians. They wrote “freedom of the press” into the First Amendment because they knew it was important to have journalists be the eyes, ears, and voice for the people. This is never clearer than in times of crisis.

If we can’t come together now to save local journalism when it’s most essential, we may not get another chance.

David Chavern is president and CEO of the News Media Alliance.