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EDITORIAL: Can you spare a loan?

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THANK YOU. That’s nearly all there is to say. Your support has kept us going another year. We could not have imagined your generosity. You have troubles enough of your own from the pandemic and other hardships that seldom make headlines. Yet you continue to purchase subscriptions and newsstand copies, and click on www.columbiapaper.com. All of it helps.

You’ve noticed that the paper is thinner now than when we suspended publication for 10 weeks beginning in April. That’s not the result of too little news. Fewer pages means lower costs. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But here’s a breaking story: local newspapers are among the businesses eligible for loans as part of the $900-billion pandemic relief bill approved this week by Congress.

The preliminary information says that money for newspapers will come from an improved loan program called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was part of the first pandemic recovery legislation. The original PPP got mixed reviews: some big shots got big loans and shouldn’t have; small firms who got money later wished they hadn’t. The rules in round one of PPP excluded this newspaper from applying. Local banks we contacted gave us the bad news.

The New York Times reports that this new stimulus will offer loans not only to local newspapers, but to radio and TV stations, to nonprofits and “$15 billion for performance venues, independent movie theaters and cultural institutions.” We’ve got those around here. Take that, Covid-19!

There’s also money for direct help to struggling families, schools (including $7 billion for access to broadband internet access), rental support, unemployment funds, nutrition programs and Covid-19 vaccine delivery. It all sounds good if we accept that the country will need a lot more economic stimulus assistance in the months to come to build a post-Covid society that works better for all of us than today’s tattered norms.

President-elect Biden has promised this bipartisan agreement will be followed by more funds for recovery. New York’s senior senator, Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D) has called this legislation a “down payment.” Who knows if the Senate will agree.

Will government funds for local newspapers improve the chances of survival for this paper? Could that make the federal government the owner of local newspapers?

Don’t lose any sleep over the ownership question. There’s not enough money or enough power in the local newspapers anymore for the government to care. Maybe these PPP loans will help prolong the lives of the papers that borrow under the program. Taking on too much debt can be a trap in any business. And it’s a temporary reprieve, though “temporary” can last a long time.

More to the point is that the major forces that have gutted the newspaper business is the dominance of Facebook and Google, which have monopoly control over digital advertising. And now at least two lawsuits by groups of state attorneys general are seeking to break up those monopolies.

If these efforts are successful, the companies might have to share some of their wealth with local news producers. That might be a major boost to the fortunes of newspapers that conduct legitimate news operations. But the pace of such legal actions and the disruptions of the pandemic could put financial relief a long way off.

That brings us back to you. We will continue to cover local news from and about Columbia County. We know from our weekly circulation data that many of our readers want the print edition. But yearly subscriptions, newsstand sales and advertising of all types don’t cover the costs. So starting at the end of this week, we will post online a request for voluntary contributions to help us expand our website, www.columbiapaper.com and keep it free.

If that’s not successful, we’ll consider the crowd source suggestion from readers to install a pay wall.

We don’t have the answers for how we’ll make this work. All we can promise is that we’ll do our best.

Speaking of best things, we send you our best wishes for the Holiday Season along with the best advice our sources give us: Stay safe, stay home, stay distanced, wash your hands and wear a mask.

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