By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, April 19 (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers called on Sunday for expanding payroll assistance to struggling local newspapers and broadcast stations that have seen advertising revenue plummet during the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic Senators Maria Cantwell and Amy Klobuchar and Republicans John Kennedy and John Boozman urged Senate leaders to revise the rules to make thousands of local newspapers, TV and radio stations eligible for assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program.
Many local outlets are ineligible because they are owned by parent companies too large to qualify.
"Ensuring that local news outlets remain viable at this critical time is not only a matter of fairness, but is essential to public health," the senators wrote in a letter.
On Sunday, officials said U.S. lawmakers were close to an agreement on approving extra money to help small businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and could seal a deal soon.
The four senators said local newspapers had lost as much as 50% of advertising revenue, while the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) says some local broadcasters have reported as much as a 90% loss in advertising revenues.
Tens of thousands of local media workers are being forced to take unpaid furloughs or seeing cuts to paychecks, while other outlets are shrinking staff and reducing the frequency of printing, and some smaller newspapers in California, Vermont and South Dakota are closing.
Newspaper publisher Gannett Co said this month it would reduce expenses by another $100 million to $125 million this year through staffing reductions, furloughs and "significant pay reductions for senior management and cancellation of non-essential travel and spending."
The parent company of the Los Angeles Times said this week it was imposing temporary pay cuts for senior managers of up to 15% and furloughing some non-newsroom employees for up to 16 weeks.
Unlike many other businesses, news organizations were already hurting before the pandemic. Employment at U.S. newsrooms fell 25% from 2008 to 2018, the Pew Research Center reported, a loss of 28,000 jobs, while 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed since 2004.
NAB President Gordon Smith said on Sunday that "local stations are suffering advertising losses of historic proportion that will undermine this critically important service."
Earlier this month, four groups representing broadcasters and newspapers - including the NAB - asked lawmakers to back up to $10 billion in government advertising and to rewrite Paycheck Protection Program rules. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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