The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Hammering Local Newspapers

Reporters from alt-weeklies and local newspapers are trying to cover a crisis that is causing layoffs and closures across the industry.

Jerry Iannelli, a staff reporter with the Miami New Times, an alternative weekly publication, was at Target on Tuesday stocking up on supplies for life under coronavirus social-distancing guidelines when he got an email from his paper’s corporate management.

Iannelli, like countless reporters nationwide, has spent the last two weeks working day and night to cover the spread of the pandemic and its effects on his community, providing vital coverage to readers desperate to keep up with news about the virus, official responses to it, and the lives and businesses it has put at risk. Now, he is among the growing number of workers whose jobs have been put at risk.

The memo said that because of the economic impact of the pandemic, “layoffs will very likely be necessary” at Voice Media Group, which owns alt-weeklies across the country.

In the interim, effective Wednesday, every employee of Voice Media Group, which includes Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer, Miami New Times and Broward New Times, had their pay cut: 25% for employees making less than $80,000, 30% for those making more than that, and 35% for executives.

“Losing a quarter of your salary is devastating,” Iannelli said. “I wouldn’t say it was a large salary to begin with. ... I’m sitting here wondering if I have to move apartments. I immediately will have to rebudget my entire life.”

The journalism industry was shedding jobs in economic good times. The coronavirus pandemic has only brought more trouble to the struggling sector.
The journalism industry was shedding jobs in economic good times. The coronavirus pandemic has only brought more trouble to the struggling sector.
Carol Yepes via Getty Images

The journalism business was already shedding jobs at its fastest rate since the Great Recession before the novel coronavirus pandemic began. But as the spread worsens and the economy grinds to a halt, newspapers across the country are once again laying off or furloughing staff writers, cutting salaries and even temporarily ceasing publication at a rapid rate.

It has hit the industry from top to bottom: The New York Times Co., citing “‘uncertainty and anxiety’ caused by the coronavirus,” said it expected online ad revenue to fall by 10% in the first quarter. But the losses are particularly devastating for alt-weeklies, which heavily rely on advertising from local businesses, many of which are now temporarily closed.

Layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts have hit Washingtonian Magazine, the Military Times, and, across the border, one of Canada’s few remaining independent alt-weeklies. The Stranger, a Seattle-based newspaper, said this week that it would stop printing and laid off 18 staffers. In St. Louis, the Riverfront Times laid off most of its staff and temporarily suspended its print edition. The Portland Mercury joined them, laying off 10 staffers this week, while the Sacramento News & Review told readers it needed contributions to keep printing after advertising revenues dropped 50% in less than a week. The Advocate, Louisiana’s largest paper, has told staff to keep down expenses and avoid working overtime. The Reno News & Review, which shares a publisher with the Sacramento paper, announced that it will suspend operations indefinitely and lay off its entire staff after Thursday’s issue publishes.

Many of the papers said the changes were temporary. But there were also dire warnings about the future.

“It could be the end,” Jeff vonKaenel, the publisher of the News & Review papers in Sacramento, Reno and Chico, California, said in a statement posted on Twitter.

Local Alt-Weeklies Are The First Victims

Lesser-known than their giant major daily counterparts, alternative publications play an important role in local journalism ― especially when it comes to coverage of art and food scenes and local politics, areas of coverage larger print operations have scaled back amid budget crunches and layoffs. Often revered for their use of bluer language and a less stuffy approach to reporting, the alts also tend to provide more coverage of and voice to marginalized and minority communities than their bigger counterparts.

“Our core coverage [is] keeping up with the breaking news and looking for the gaps ― looking how this impacts underserved communities that might not have a voice in mainstream media,” said John Heaston, publisher of the Omaha Reader and president of the board of directors for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

“An industry that lost 7,800 jobs nationwide as the market boomed last year is poorly positioned for an economywide downturn.”

Iannelli, the Miami New Times reporter, and his co-workers have been working around the clock to cover the virus’s spread in Miami, the Florida primary, which took place Tuesday, and so on. Everyone on his four-person news team clocked 12 hours on both Saturday and Sunday, he said. Last week, Iannelli’s reporting on activism around the possible spread of the coronavirus in prisons led the Miami-Dade state attorney to announce she’d begin working to release inmates during the outbreak.

Still, even as they act as vital on-the-ground resources to get news to the public, alt-weeklies have long been “ground zero” for layoffs in national emergencies. In 2017, the Houston Press, then a 28-year-old weekly, abruptly ended its entire print operation after sustaining substantial losses amid Hurricane Harvey.

And that’s on top of existing business pressures for small publications, and some ownership groups that have not offered extensive worker protections. Voice Media Group’s salary cuts came not long after it refused to voluntarily recognize efforts to form unions at the Miami New Times and Phoenix New Times; instead, it took its employees to the National Labor Relations Board to fight over the size of the proposed organizing unit.

But No Publication Is Safe

Local and regional papers haven’t had their heyday for some time. Layoffs and downsizing are commonplace in an industry that has struggled to find ways to make money in the digital age. American newsroom employment dropped a quarter between 2008 and 2018, shedding about 28,000 jobs. In 15 years, more than 1,400 cities and towns have lost papers. Even as the coronavirus eats up online traffic, surpassing web activity around the 2020 election, local and regional newspapers can’t afford to see their print revenue slide more than it already has.

Corporate-owned papers are vulnerable, too. Gannett-Gatehouse, the newly merged corporate giant that owns the Times Union, USA Today and more than 250 other newspapers, is primarily shareholder owned; as the stock market nosedives, so could these papers.

The company was already “targeting inefficiencies” ― corporate speak for “layoffs are imminent” ― after the November merger. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, Gannett’s stock dropped nearly 50% on Wednesday alone.

“One of the bigger things that is scaring me is the sharp drop” of the stock market, said Andrew Pantazi, a reporter with The Florida Times-Union, a Gannett paper. “If our market cap keeps dropping so rapidly, what will that mean for our cash flow? That is being driven by shareholder expectations, which has been affected by coronavirus.”

Playboy Magazine announced Thursday its spring edition would be its last print magazine, saying the “disruption of the coronavirus pandemic to content production and the supply chain” accelerated growing concerns about sustaining a print product. Some publications, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Tampa Bay Times, laid off employees this month in moves they said were unrelated to coronavirus-related advertising drops.

More cuts seem sure to follow at other similarly sized papers if the economy continues to worsen and ad revenues plummet. An industry that lost 7,800 jobs nationwide as the market boomed last year, according to Business Insider, is poorly positioned for an economywide downturn.

Gaps In Information

The latest crunch to hit the journalism business seems certain to hammer local news the hardest, further limiting vital coverage at a time when Americans are likelier than ever to live in “news deserts.” That decline in access to local news has made Americans less informed, less likely to engage in public and civic affairs, and is creating a crisis for the nation’s democracy, studies have suggested. And the loss of so many jobs at major dailies and alternative outlets alike will likely push even more young journalists, reporters of color and writers from marginalized backgrounds out of an industry that is already lily-white and hard to access for aspiring reporters from poorer and minority backgrounds.

“We’ve got a group of very savvy and nimble operators who I believe are taking the steps necessary to weather this.”

- John Heaston, president of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

Many newspaper companies have eliminated paywalls on news about the coronavirus pandemic, a move that some hope could bring in more subscribers, but could also potentially deliver another blow to the bottom line. The McClatchy Co., which owns 30 newspapers in 14 states and is currently in bankruptcy proceedings, dropped its paywall on coronavirus coverage in early March. The decision was made with journalism ― not business ― in mind, said Jeanne Segal, a company spokeswoman.

“Dropping the paywall in the case of emergencies is never a business decision, it is a mission driven one,” Segal said in an email to HuffPost. “This public service mission is at the heart of why we are in business — to provide essential local news and information that is essential to the communities we serve.”

Hope For The Future

Still, some are hopeful there’s a brighter future on the other side of the crisis. Pantazi said he hopes the low interest rates will encourage more local investment in papers, or even more employer-owned papers. That’s something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) backed on the presidential campaign trail, saying employees should be given the opportunity to purchase media outlets through employee stock-ownership plans before any mergers take place.

Since the Great Recession, alternative papers have focused on diversifying revenue streams, through event hosting and membership drives, in order to avoid relying solely on local advertising and increase their ability to survive sudden downturns like this one.

“This isn’t the first crisis we’ve been through,” Heaston said. “A lot of lessons were learned in 2008, and we’ve got a group of very savvy and nimble operators who I believe are taking the steps necessary to weather this. … I can only hope that that nimbleness, that creativity helps us and puts us in a good position when things rebound.”

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