Why Local News Is Suffering When People Need It Most

17 min
More people are relying on local news to understand what's happening in their communities during the covid 19 pandemic. But that's not enough to save it. (Courtesy Joe Rodriguez Fitzgerald)

On Tuesday, all staffers at the San Francisco Examiner and SF Weekly were notified that they'll be taking a 40 percent cut in hours and salary, even though more people are reading their stories. In fact, on a single day in March, the number of pageviews for the Examiner was 6,000 times higher than normal.

But more page views hasn’t translated into more money for reporters, especially because local businesses, strapped for cash, are pulling back their advertising.

Devin Katayama spoke with Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a reporter and columnist with the Examiner.

How He Found Out About The Pay Cuts

I was on the phone, actually, with a reporter who was asking me for job advice. I do my best to talk to other reporters, especially student reporters, as they come up. I've made myself very available.

And so this was a younger reporter who was making a choice between a few job offers, and they were juggling three job offers at great places. And I’m so happy for them, like “You’re doing great! Good! You’re achieving!”

Then, I get a text message from my editor going, “Hey, we have an emergency meeting about what's happening with us right now. And you have to go. You have to. You have to call in.”

We were all on a Google Hangouts video call and our editor just kind of got straight to it. Deborah Petersen, she just kind of said, “you know what, our advertisers are gone, mostly. We were already in a tough spot, and we're gonna have to take these measures to get us through.”

The look on their faces was ... it was kind of this stone-face thing in a way, where I remember some of them having this blank look. It's almost like when you have a family member who's in the hospital and they're not doing well — and you know, it's coming, but it still hits you hard when it happens. But, true to their credit, as reporters, what we did was immediately launch into asking questions, which you would hope.

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What Stories He Was Working On

There was an order to stop — by the city — to stop ripping up tents and taking tents from homeless people because there is a potential for the homeless population to be incredibly impacted by COVID-19, which has a street population, about 7,000 homeless people. And so the idea is, don't take their tents because they need that to socially distance.

And as part of that, I was going to track 311 encampment resolutions to see how well the city itself is responding to its own order to no longer confiscate those tents, to make sure that homeless people are protected from COVID-19 ... which really protects all of us, because if you have a homeless population that has contracted COVID like wildfires, that affects every one of us.

And that takes time. It takes time to go through every 311 resolution. And that's not something that you can get in a press release. It's not something you make one phone call to figure out. That's something that takes time.

The Broader Impact of Losing Local Reporters

When reporters are diminished, when there are fewer of us, the only way that the few remaining reporters are able to get the information that they need to put a story out there is through press conferences and statements from officials.

That is very one-dimensional. At the end of the day, if you're not going out into the community, if you're not talking to the people who were there, then you don't have a story about people — about what people are going through.

I have a plan to go and ride Muni in San Francisco and talk to the people who still have to work, the people who can't work from home and who can't protect themselves from COVID and who have to go out there — either because they're an essential worker or because they need the money and can't afford to take the time off to protect themselves and their families.

And that kind of reporting, when you're out there talking to people, is what's going to get lost as we lose more reporters and more time.

How He’s Handling This Personally

I might have spent about two or three hours laying on my couch, staring at the ceiling yesterday. That may have happened. I guess the news shocked me so much. I guess it just kind of startled me so much.

It's not about me personally. That's not what I'm worried about. I'll be fine. This mission of hyper-local San Francisco news, really, it's what we think about every day. It's what we talk about every day. We breathe it.

The hardest part is not a furlough of pay. The hardest part is the furlough of mission.

How The Public Has Responded

There's people going way back, people that I highlighted five years ago, four years ago that were like, “I remember when you told that story about what we were going through and we've got your back.”

Some people really in their lives want to see everywhere in the world. They want to see every corner of the earth. And that's beautiful. And I enjoy that, too.

But what I really value more than anything is seeing how deep my roots can go. How deep can we go? How many parts of San Francisco's neighborhoods can I make feel like home?

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