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15 July 2020updated 21 Jul 2020 8:32am

The fight to save local news

New York based journalist David Brand on how the pandemic has accelerated the crisis facing US local news.

By Sophie McBain

The New York City borough of Queens, population 2.3 million, is the most linguistically diverse place in the world, with around 138 languages spoken there. It stretches from the affluent high-rises of Long Island City, directly across the river from Manhattan, outwards to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York.

Queens has one daily print newspaper, The Queens Daily Eagle. Since May that paper has had one member of editorial staff, a 33-year-old reporter and self-described “hype managing editor”, David Brand.

After his two colleagues were furloughed on 11 May, Brand has been responsible for five print issues a week. Every weekday he writes a few stories, edits articles from freelancers, compiles around half of the paper’s 16 pages (the other pages are shared with a sister publication, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle), liaises with advertisers, posts articles online and then promotes them on the paper’s social media channels.

On Sundays, he co-hosts City Watch, a public affairs radio show. “The workload is definitely challenging,” Brand told me, when we spoke on Zoom in mid-June, “but it’s manageable.”

The pandemic has accelerated the financial crisis facing local news organisations, even as it makes urgent the need for trusted local information and investigative reporting. By June, Poynter – a media research organisation – reported that at least 50 local newsrooms across the US had closed as a result of Covid-19.

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Over the past 15 years, the US has lost 2,100 newspapers, leaving around 200 American counties with no local newspaper. Meanwhile, a succession of furloughs and lay-offs have left many remaining local newspapers scrambling to cover the most consequential stories in recent memory: the devastation caused by the coronavirus outbreak and the nationwide civil rights protests.

In Queens the crisis has been especially acute: the borough has one of the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in New York and the lowest number of hospital beds per capita. When Queens’ Elmhurst Hospital became the first in the country to become overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, local journalists broke the news.

Brand, a former social worker, was one of the first to report on the vulnerability of New York’s homeless and jail populations after his contacts began giving warnings.

The pandemic is both a global story and a local one, a constellation of super-spreader events and inundated hospitals and beloved neighbourhood bars and restaurants folding. “You saw during the height of Covid-19, people really wanted to know what’s going on in their communities, in their hospitals, what’s going on in the businesses down the block,” Brand said. The Queens Daily Eagle’s readership has risen consistently since its founding in 2018 and has experienced an uptick because of the pandemic. The paper, which is privately owned, has a print run of 10,000 copies and received over two million visits to its website in the first half of 2020.

On 26 June 2018, the day after the Queens Daily Eagle was founded, the 28-year-old Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic Party’s primary to represent Queens and the neighbouring Bronx, unseating the party favourite Joe Crowley and propelling Queens politics into the national spotlight. Since then, the solidly Democratic borough has acted as a microcosm of the internal battles within the party, between establishment liberals and an insurgent left wing. When we spoke, Brand was preparing to cover New York’s 23 June primary, which included dozens of state senate and assembly election races and an election of a new borough president.

Brand grew up in rural New Jersey and studied at Boston University. He had been involved in student journalism but when Brand moved to New York and struggled to find a reporting job he became interested in social work instead. His jobs working with people with disabilities and later with the homeless satisfied some of his “journalistic curiosity”. It taught him to act as an advocate and gave him intimate knowledge of how local government and social care provision works, but he missed writing.

He began freelancing as a journalist, and to entertain himself he also began adapting rap into Shakespearean English, a hobby that reached a pinnacle in 2016 when Ian McKellen was invited to read Brand’s “Drakespeare” verses on BBC Radio 1. “This could be the most pointless activity that anyone’s ever dreamt up,” McKellen observed, to Brand’s amusement.

Brand’s sense of humour occasionally permeates the Queens Eagle’s pages, too. When Donald Trump was impeached in 2019, the newspaper ran the story on page 16 with the deadpan headline: “Queens man impeached.” The headline caught the attention of the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow who held up a copy of the paper on her show, describing it as “the best example I have ever seen of all news is local”.

Brand might see things slightly differently. “It’s kind of funny to me thinking of Queens reporting as local news,” he said. “If Queens was its own city it would be in the top five cities in the US. The president is from Queens. The governor is from Queens. Every day I read that another celebrity or professional athlete is from Queens. It’s an amazing place.” 

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine