Local papers are shuttering as the coronavirus decimates the economy, but what — if anything — can be done?
It’s no secret that local newspapers weren’t in a good place before the coronavirus, but since the pandemic hit America, shuttering businesses that once bought ads, local news outlets are in a distinctly bad place.
Since the pandemic, several local papers like Indiana’s Daily Clintonian have shut down altogether. Others have suspended print publication and laid off or furloughed staffers, including Seattle’s The Stranger, Portland, Oregon’s Mercury, Detroit’s MetroTimes and Cincinnati’s CityBeat. And virtually every news outlet, from the L.A. Times to the New York Post to TheWrap, has implemented some combination of layoffs, furloughs orJust pay cuts as ad (and other) revenues have abruptly eroded.
As Poynter Institute’s list of newsroom closures, layoffs and furloughs, which is constantly updating, notes up top: “It’s getting hard to keep track of the bad news about the news right now.”
Poynter’s Kristen Hare, who has been documenting the carnage, created the list because it was getting too hard to keep up with all the bad news. “I just needed a place to put all the stories I was doing into one place,” she said in a phone interview. It felt like there was this trickle, you know? Layoffs, layoffs, layoffs. And closures. And furloughs. As a media reporter you see the bigger picture, but it’s hard if you’re not covering it to see that. It was important to give them a place.”
“The big difference” between pre-pandemic closures and now, Hare said, “is hardly anyone is safe.” She pointed out that media giants like Condé Nast and Gannett are on the list just like a local Indiana paper that had operated for 100 years.
Still, there’s a little hope. Before the coronavirus, Hare said she saw “lots of different solutions” being implemented community by community that might continue when normalcy returns: “My hope is that the ecosystems that have been built in places like New Jersey and Philly and Seattle — and even statewide news ecosystems — will help carry communities through this.”
Some, however, think a less local approach is needed. Sam Terilli, the chair of the University of Miami’s department of journalism and media management who also served as general counsel to the Miami Herald Publishing Company, urged outlets to use federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to get them through the current revenue crisis. Where some publishers — like Axios, which gave back its PPP loan this week — see an ethical dilemma, Terilli sees a solution.
Terilli called the loan, which is only available to businesses with 500 or fewer employees, a “good thing” and said he is “not at all concerned about creating a risk that somehow is going to break down the wall of editorial separation between church and state, between newspapers and governments, local or otherwise. The fact is, local news going back to the founding of the republican has had relations with the government,” from advertising to postal rates.
Outlets worried about the ethics of accepting a loan, he advised, should rely on full disclosure and let readers decide whether their credibility is somehow compromised because “they have bills to pay.” He added that subscribers have yet to provide enough revenue for newspapers to survive and papers have been downsizing at the expense of employees for years.
That fact doesn’t escape the journalists and newspaper employees who have been dealing with the fat-trimming for years. One former sales employee at a local newspaper (whose parent company also recently announced furloughs and pay cuts, of course) said ad sales had declined year over year even before the coronavirus took hold of the American economy. In a matter of months, the amount they brought in through sales was cut in half.
“I wasn’t an outside sales rep,” the individual said, “so it wasn’t like I was just bad at the job. That was $20,000 less in advertising walking through our doors by the advertisers’ choice.”