United States Senators have a new idea to boost struggling local news outlets in their home states: Ads from the federal government.
Nearly three-quarters of the US Senate have signed a letter to the Trump administration encouraging various agencies to "increase advertising in local newspapers and on broadcast stations in order to help ensure they are able to continue to operate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic."
More than half of the members of the US House of Representatives have lent their names to a letter endorsing the same idea earlier this week.
It remains to be seen whether federal agencies will follow through. But several of the lawmakers hold powerful positions on appropriations committees — so when they weigh in on how federal funds should be spent, their voices echo across Washington.
Notably, dozens of Republican lawmakers signed the House and Senate letters, which is no small thing in a "fake news" age when it's often politically expedient for President Trump's allies to assail the media.
But some of the same Republican lawmakers who ridicule national news outlets care deeply about the newspapers and TV and radio stations in their home states. When push comes to shove, it's ultimately in the interest of elected officials to have a functioning local media ecosystem.
And many of those media outlets, in both red and blue states, have been pushed to the brink. The pandemic has exacerbated downward trends, particularly for print newspapers, which are suffering from both subscription losses and the rerouting of advertising dollars to digital outlets.
Many advertisers are pulling back on their planned spending due to the uncertainty associated with the coronavirus crisis. Newspaper owners are responding by cutting pay, furloughing staff members and taking other cost-cutting steps. Some have resorted to layoffs.
Local television stations, with newscasts that blanket the country and help lawmakers reach their constituents, are also facing budgetary constraints.
Elected officials have responded with several different proposals for local news lifelines. Some lawmakers want funds for local media to be included in any future stimulus package, for example.
The idea that has gained the most traction, by far, is the federal advertising proposal.
"Many federal agencies maintain advertising accounts in order to provide public notices and information to Americans," the senators wrote in a letter dated Thursday, April 23. "For example, the Census Bureau receives funding to run advertisements regarding the 2020 Census."
The senators said that federal agencies should look to share "essential information" about the pandemic "through local advertisements," which would inject some much-needed investment into media companies.
"Increasing local advertising will both help disseminate important information to communities and support local media with revenue that will help keep them operating," Thursday's letter stated. "This action can be implemented today, without the need for additional federal appropriations from Congress."
The two lead signees of the letter were Joe Manchin, Democrat from West Virginia, and Steve Daines, Republican from Montana. It total, 74 senators put their signatures in the call to action.
Manchin said on Twitter that he had heard from broadcasters and newspapers in West Virginia that are "facing a financial crisis due to advertising revenue declines."
"Making sure that they are able to continue operating during this time is critical," he added.
The earlier letter from House members was addressed to the president directly. The letter from senators was addressed to Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business on Friday.