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PD Editorial: Newspapers’ vital role in the time of the coronavirus

Three more community newspapers are folding, leaving a void in three California communities at a time when local news and information are more essential than ever.

With the latest closures, at least nine California weeklies have been silenced in the past month, each an ancillary victim of the coronavirus.

The human toll of the pandemic - more than 156,000 deaths worldwide and counting, as of Saturday - is staggering. Meanwhile, health care systems and food supply chains are under enormous pressure. Our daily routines have been upended by social distancing requirements, and businesses large and small are suffering.

To navigate the crisis, and to rebuild local economies afterward, information is a vital resource.

There are numerous sources for national news, but hometown news doesn't come from cable networks or national or regional publications.

What's open? What's closed? Are there hot spots to avoid? Is testing available? How about masks? Where? When will parks and beaches reopen? What restrictions will be in place? Answers to those questions come from local newspapers.

With local governments meeting on irregular schedules, and turning to on conference calls or online platforms, the watchdog function of local newspapers takes on added importance.

Those resources are gone for residents of Antioch and Brentwood, Burbank and Glendale and other communities that have lost their local newspapers.

Some publications have laid off employees or dropped their print editions.

The Press Democrat and our affiliated papers, including the Sonoma Index-Tribune, the Petaluma Argus-Courier and the North Bay Business Journal, aren't immune to the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. We have reduced pages, and most employees outside the newsrooms are working fewer hours or for reduced wages.

Some papers, including ours, qualified for Small Business Administration loans under the coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress. More federal funding is needed to assist small businesses of every kind.

Press Democrat readers have continued to show confidence in their locally owned newspaper, with traffic on our website up substantially over the past month. We've received thank you notes and small donations from readers, and we've added more than 1,000 new digital subscribers, offsetting some of the lost advertising revenue. For all of that, we are grateful.

Public health officers, recognizing that residents need accurate, timely information, identified journalists as essential workers.

News is essential, and there are steps that Sacramento can take to ensure that local news organizations don't succumb to the pandemic. The California News Publishers Association identified several in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom:

Direct state agencies to prioritize local news and ethnic publications for placement of public outreach ads.

Extend the law allowing newspaper carriers to be classified as independent contractors.

Offer tax deductions as incentives for subscribers and advertisers to continue supporting local newspapers.

Exempt newspapers from charging sales taxes until the economy recovers.

This has been a difficult month for our community and our industry. Our local owners remain committed to thorough coverage of Sonoma County and the North Bay. Our newsrooms remain fully staffed, we've eliminated our online paywall for coronavirus updates, and The Press Democrat hired an additional reporter to help cover the local impacts of the pandemic.

At a time when reliable information is needed more than ever, the coronavrius threatens to turn more small communities into news deserts. With your continued support of The Press Democrat and other local newspapers, Sonoma County won't be one of them.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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