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In the daily drumbeat of grim headlines about struggling news organizations that are trying to survive an economic crisis while covering a global pandemic, a bright spot can be found in at least one place, at least right now: local TV news.
"We are healthy," said Eric Lassberg, vice president and general manager at KXAN Austin News/NBC. "There have been no dramatic changes. The word from the top is, 'Let's just work hard and help our local communities. This is a time to pull the bootstraps and do great journalism.'"
In Austin, leaner staffs, increased viewership trends during disasters and an election-fueled infusion of cash in the first quarter have put local TV news in the unique position of being able to survive—at least for now—the financial realities that have forced more devastating moves in the Austin print community.
On Monday, reporters and other employees at the Austin American-Statesman were met with the news that they would need to take three unpaid weeks off over the next three months as their parent company, Gannett, tries to deal with shrinking advertising dollars.
Earlier this month, the Austin Chronicle went from four monthly print publications to two.
Newspapers had already been struggling for years before the health crisis. By contrast, local news stations—particularly in Austin, among the top 50 largest TV markets in the country—were enjoying an infusion of millions of dollars by local and national candidates vying for their parties' nomination in Texas' March primaries.
That is part of the reason they have not been as affected by the dramatic decline in advertising, said Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and professor of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin.
"It is clear that their situation is better than the newspapers,'" he said.
The stations are not immune because they are based on advertising, which—even as some industries like delivery services buy more air time—is still reliant on the health of businesses, most of which are closed in Austin right now.
And even the most striking increases in viewership that would in normal times translate to better pitches to advertising clients, aren't going to make much impact on a business that has no money to spend, no matter how high the investment return would be.
Lassberg said his station has seen the profile and messaging of their advertising clients shift: More services that are thriving, such as deliveries, and more messages of solidarity.
"You'll see that a lot of advertisers are just speaking and communicating to the community almost in a way where it's not necessarily an advertisement," Lassberg said.
But because this pandemic is unlike any other disaster or crisis we have seen in this lifetime, Alves said, the future of even TV is uncertain—even after the crisis ends.
"Of course, this crisis is different," he said. "And the world will never be the same in terms of media."
After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.