Senate Armed Services Committee member, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on "Nuclear Policy and Posture" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2019. Credit: Carolyn Kaster | AP

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Maine Sen. Angus King and several Democrats in the U.S. Senate called on Wednesday for a future stimulus bill aimed at coronavirus relief to include money to support local news organizations.

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, signed a letter with 18 Senate Democrats that characterized local news organizations as “in a state of crisis” that was only “exacerbated” by the coronavirus pandemic.

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“Reliable local news and information has been critically important during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet it has become more scarce,” the senators wrote.

The virus is expected to further harm news organizations that have struggled to rebuild since the Great Recession. Print ad revenue is expected to decline by 25 percent in 2020, according to a forecast from Magna Global. Among counties with at least one confirmed case, 37 percent have lost a local newspaper between 2004 and 2019, according to the Brookings Institute.

Local news sites have seen their readership increase significantly since the outbreak began, with some newspapers reporting that their online traffic has more than doubled, the New York Times reported. Dozens of local news organizations have still furloughed or laid off employees, according to the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism research organization.

J.W. Oliver, editor of The Lincoln County News and the president of the Maine Press Association, said the association had not collaborated with King on the effort, but that federal stimulus money for local news organizations would be welcomed.

While Oliver said he did not know of any news organizations in Maine in “imminent danger,” the closure of only a few community newspapers would likely leave swaths of rural Maine without any local news coverage. The Bangor Daily News is a member of the press association.

“Newspapers tend to operate on thin margins already,” Oliver said.

Past efforts to bail out the news industry have gone nowhere in Congress, including a push in 2009 to give tax breaks to organizations that reorganize as nonprofits. Conservative groups have spoken against that and similar efforts, arguing they would make the press more beholden to government.

The next phase of a congressional stimulus package remains unclear. Republicans have called for a voice vote on Thursday to allocate $250 billion in additional funding for a lending program for small businesses championed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Smaller news organizations — including most in Maine — might be eligible for federal funding under that program.

Democrats have expressed support for funding the program for small businesses, but have also called for increased funding for hospitals and social services as part of the next relief package.

Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, wrote a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday calling for increased funding for the small business program beyond what Republicans have proposed, as well as funding for rural hospitals and continued direct payments to individuals.