June 3, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

A note from Al:

For a couple of months now I have focused solely on the COVID-19 story and I am staying on that topic for as long as it is helpful. But, starting today, I am also including other story ideas and resources that I hope will help you, especially while you are buried with so many things to cover and limited resources and access. 

So, I need your help in renaming this newsletter. We have been calling it “Covering COVID-19.” For many years, I wrote a similar column for Poynter called “Al’s Morning Meeting.” My colleagues think that sounds a bit old-fashioned. So, I am open to other, snappier names. The goal, to be clear, is to provide story ideas that any newsroom might be able to adapt and use to enterprise on any media. It hits mailboxes at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday.

I think of this as “our column” since so much of what I write comes from you. So, send me your suggestions for a new name. If I use your suggestion, I will send you a cheap but meaningful gift that will probably involve me digging around in my desk to find something.

What are people searching for?

I wanted to know how interested people are right now in COVID-19 so I checked Google Trends. I was surprised to find that while searches for “George Floyd” of course shot up in the last week, people are also still very interested in the coronavirus story.

(Screenshots, Google Trends)

Will museums sell art to survive the COVID-19 shutdown?

Let me start this post with a close-up on Ohio, where the Cincinnati Museum Center announced this week that it will cut 50 full-time and 125 part-time employees who until now were on furlough. Those who stay on the payroll will see pay cuts that range all the way up to 40% for managers. Cincinnati Public Radio reported that the museum expects to lose $3.5 million this fiscal year and more than twice that for the next budget year.

I use that as just one example, but it is playing out worldwide.

The American Alliance of Museums estimated that when its member museums were closed for COVID-19, they were losing at least $33 million a day. They are not optimistic that donors will step up giving any time soon, if ever. So dark days may be ahead for them.

You may not have noticed that in April, the Association of Art Museum Directors — a group you likely have never heard of — passed a series of resolutions that will not penalize museums that use restricted funds or sell some of their collections to keep running during the COVID-19 shutdown. Until now, it has been acceptable for museums to sell art to buy more art, but not to sell art to survive. This almost unheard-of notion would begin with museums talking to whoever donated artwork with the offer to give it back to the donor.

But here is a wrinkle. If a museum does sell artifacts, even if they account for just a small portion of assets, it could compromise the tax-exempt status of the nonprofit institutions.

Americans for the Arts has gathered a lot of data down to the state level on the pandemic’s effects on arts and culture. You can filter the data down to a zip code level to get local.

Once you consider canceled or postponed exhibits, performances, classes and fundraising events, the loss of visitors, and reduced contributions, the arts community is not only on the ropes, but facing mass closure. Look at the survey results of what the leaders believe may be ahead:

(Americans for the Arts)

The New York Times reported on an international survey that showed museums worldwide are teetering toward collapse. Nina Siegal, a Times contributor who covers art, culture and society, wrote:

More than 30 respondents to a 41-country survey, by the Network of European Museum Organizations, said they feared they would have to close permanently, among them the Museo de La Rioja and Museum of the Americas in Spain; Kornberg Castle in Austria, the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center in Hungary, and the National Historical Museum of Albania.

The American Alliance of Museums told Congress:

Museums are economic engines. Economic impact data compiled by the American Alliance of Museums and Oxford Economics shows that this museum economy contributes $50 billion a year to the U.S. economy and generates $12 billion in tax revenue to local, state, and federal governments. Museums also are vital local sources of employment, supporting 726,000 jobs annually. Museums play an essential role in the nation’s educational infrastructure, spending more than $2 billion a year on education. The destabilizing effects of the current crisis place the future of these contributions to the U.S. economy and education system at great risk. If these businesses fail during this crisis, then there will be no jobs to which many thousands of displaced workers can return.

Artsy, an online platform for discovering, buying and selling fine art, reported:

According to estimates by the American Alliance of Museums, museums nationwide are collectively losing at least $33 million daily due to COVID-19-related closures. As many as 30% — mostly those in small and rural communities — will not reopen without emergency financial aid.

Artsy reported on some medium-sized venues such as The Cleveland Museum of Art:

“…which had an operating budget of $57.1 million for the fiscal year 2018–19, is anticipating a shortfall in excess of $5 million by the end of June, when its fiscal year concludes. The financial impact has led to payroll reductions: The museum has furloughed all part-time staff, who make up about 30% of its roughly 470 employees, as well as several unionized staff members. All full-time nonunion staff have also taken salary reductions representing five fewer hours of work per week.”

On top of it all, museums, which heavily rely on volunteers, wonder how many volunteers will show up to help once they reopen. Museum volunteers trend toward older adults and they, of course, are a vulnerable COVID-19 population. The American Alliance of Museums said, “AAM’s data shows museums average about six volunteers for every paid staff member — and that number is far higher at smaller institutions.”

It is also interesting that museums are actively gathering artifacts that will someday illustrate the COVID-19 pandemic.

One bright spot, if you can call it that, is that the pandemic and the resulting recession may lead to a decline in art and antiquity theft because the money that might have bought ill-gotten art died up. Though Law.com did point out that layoffs and other cutbacks may compromise the security around valuable art.

Performing arts centers will not reopen soon, either

The Metropolitan Opera of New York announced this week that it was canceling all its 2020 performances. Some artists have not been paid in months and the best hope is to have a New Year’s Eve performance.

The Met may be the signal that other venues around the country, maybe around the world, will look to for guidance.

Larger scale performance centers are drawing down endowments at twice the rate of usual or more, knowing that will mean lower investment returns on whatever is left for the future.

This is what transparency looks like

WTVF in Nashville got some critical feedback from its viewers. Rather than running from it, or worse, ignoring it, the station faced up to it, owned it and acted on it.

Let me walk you through the posts. Look at the first post and see if you can spot why viewers were upset before you read further.

(Screenshots, Facebook)

The station posted a series of tweets explaining the problem and the solution:

My friends at Trusting News also pointed toward a live discussion that two anchors at KING 5 in Seattle had on the air about race and what they have learned from each other over the years.

Guidelines for Inclusive Coverage

Investigative Reporters and Editors, which I happen to adore, published a piece this week that deserves your attention, especially right now. The story is about The Seattle Times’ Guidelines for Inclusive Coverage handbook, born out of a lot of “high-profile missteps” over the years.

IRE noted:

Smaller news organizations without a lot of resources are welcome to adopt and adapt the Times’ guidelines.

Documents alone can’t make a news organization more inclusive. But they can help journalists become more comfortable examining their own blind spots when it comes to bias, race and racism.

Most people who got mortgage forbearance didn’t need it

LendingTree said it surveyed 1,000 mortgage holders who applied for and got forbearance, meaning they could defer mortgage payments for up to three months under the CARES Act. But the survey found:

Only 5% of those approved for forbearance said they wouldn’t have been able to pay their mortgage without it. Another 26% said they could have paid the mortgage, but would have had to skip other bills.

“The main reason that those almost 70% who said they applied for forbearance anyway said they just wanted a break from their monthly payment,” Brianna Wright at LendingTree told WTOP.

“There was definitely a level of guilt. We found about a third felt really, really guilty about it and another 38% felt a little bad about it. I think that’s because asking for help definitely isn’t easy and there can be a level of shame or embarrassment associated with it, even when you need the help. So that is going to be amplified when deep down you know you didn’t really need that forbearance,” Wright said.

The way we work now

This is from a reporter friend who works at WXIA in Atlanta.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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