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Coronavirus devastates some local news outlets, carving out bright spots for others

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."

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