Struggling Newspapers Face New Challenges During Pandemic

26 minutes ago

In the two months since the coronavirus first started dominating the headlines of American newspapers, some 1,100 of those newspapers have laif off and furloughed staff, cut pay and print schedules, or gone out of existence altogether.  But as WKSU's M.L. Schultze reports, it's also spawned some new models in Ohio and beyond.

On Giving Tuesday, a long line of nonprofits devastated by the corona pandemic -- from museums to food banks to zoos -- appealed to donors for their survival. It also was Giving News Day -- a new appeal to donors and subscribers throughout the country to save local journalism.


"....I’m Violet Ikonomova, an investigative journalist with Deadline Detroit. In-depth reporting requires significant resources.....” 


Local journalism -- especially its backbone, local newspapers -- was struggling long before the pandemic. The merger of Gannett and Gatehouse into the nation’s largest newspaper chain loaded the company with a billion-plus-dollars in debt. Advertising revenue that sustained newspapers for more than a century dropped 15-20 percent last year alone. And companies like owner, Advance Publications, that bet heavily on digital advertising, were running up against digital ad behemoths Facebook and Google.


The Poynter Institute, a journalism school and research center, has been documenting the troubles all along. Still, says its media business analyst Rick Edmonds, March was brutal beyond any expectation.


 “We see print newspapers go from still having a fair number of inserts and fair number of ads to just being very barren now, so it’s punishing.” 


Last year, Todd Franko got a foretaste of that punishment. He was editor of the Youngstown Vindicator. After 14 potential buyers took a pass, the paper closed in August. Franko says he and other editors and reporters were devastated and, ironically, better equipped than ever to understand the community they covered.


“For me personally, I spent 30 years reporting on reductions in the auto industry and other such manufacturing operations, retail closings etc. So you’re on one side of this news event in your community and then when it circles back and actually happens to you, you learn a lot and it’s stunning.” 


Despite existing problems in the newspaper industry, Franko and Edmonds note the Vindicator’s closing was pretty much an anomaly at the time. And alternatives like the online start-up M ahoning Matters, the Youngstown Business Journal and the Warren Tribune Chronicle stepped up.


But a half-dozen other papers nationally have closed in just the last two months. And with ad revenue cratering, no one is in a position to fill the gap in coverage in those communities. Instead, newspapers are laying off, cutting pay and scheduling regular furloughs, such as the week-at-a-time unpaid rotations implemented throughout Gannett, including the Akron Beacon, Canton Repository and Columbus Dispatch.


To help their newly out-of-work colleagues pay their bills, still-working and retired journalists launched “Microloans for Journalists” in April and got $80,000 in pledges in the first 36 hours. But Jan Leach, a former Akron Beacon Journal editor and a Kent State professor, says a decade of layoffs have cost entire communities as well as individual reporters. 


"There’s a lot of things in a crisis that don’t get covered. Obviously that happens in a lot of crises. But the problem is people need news and information now more than ever and less of it is being produced, and I’m really sad about that.“


In a bit of irony, one hope of saving newspaper reporting may rest with eliminating the cost of printing and delivering newspapers. Dozens of papers around the country have scaled back on press runs during the pandemic, including Poynter’s nonprofit Tampa Bay Times. The institute’s Rick Edmonds says the industry thinking is…


“Keep the journalism as whole as you can and unfortunately readers, older readers particularly who just love to have the paper in their hand, I think that’s not going to be a seven-day-a-week thing anymore.” 


But there’s hope amidst the chaos -- even springing from it. Americans are devouring the news these days. The New York Times reported an increase of nearly 600,000 on-line subscriptions in the first three months this year, and Edmond’s notes mid-size papers like the Boston Globe had successfully boosted digital subscriptions even before the pandemic.


“That’s a real potential and basically has a value proposition that you the reader want this product and have to pay for it.” 


He acknowledges,though, that getting people to pay for what had been free is a ‘painstaking process.’


One newspaper group that had eschewed the paywall model is Advance Publications. Just before the full impact of coronavirus hit northeast Ohio, Advance began the process of dismantling the unionized newsroom of the Plain Dealer, shifting the last of its work this week to The move caused bitter controversy.

But Chris Quinn, vice president of content for Advance Ohio, says the public still responded when asked for help.

"We went to people and said look, we’re hurting. If you value what we do, if you find any value in visiting our platforms or in engaging with us, we’re asking you to subscribe for $10 a month. They didn’t get anything extra for it. It was just a sign of support.” 


Quinn sees ad revenue starting to creep back. (Advance just launched a multi-million dollar program to match what small businesses in Northeast Ohio spend on its ads). But Quinn says it’s new ways of delivering the news -- from text-messages to e-newsletters to podcasts -- that promise new streams of revenue through subscriptions and digital ads .


“We have to find a way to pay for the staff we have that generates this content that people, more people than ever before are reading. Our audience has never been bigger than in the last two months.” 


Franko, the former Youngstown Vindicator editor, says new ways of doing a very old business are key to sustaining local journalism. And while he’s a big fan of startups like the Devil Strip in Akron and Richland Source in Mansfield, he says traditional newspapers still have a place.


“You don’t throw away 150 years. You find a way to mesh the old and the new.” 


Franko’s new job tries to do that. He’s now director of local sustainability and development for Report for America, a three-year-old effort to place hundreds of young journalists in for-profit, non-profit and startup newsrooms throughout the country. Franko says fundraising over the last month has been soaring, with donors ranging from national foundations to a third-grade class in Colorado.


“No different than water, electricity, internet, if you don’t have a solid pipeline of information, your community is in jeopardy. And I think when it comes down to the end of the day as much as we want to protect our family, protect our house, the next thing on that list is protect our community.” 


The Boston Globe launched perhaps the most interesting example of blending the old and the new a few weeks ago. It decided to give readers a coronavirus break with a front-page story of big secrets, card sharks, stolen art and murder. … All fiction and serialized the way newspapers attracted and kept readers a hundred years ago. 

But the on-line version includes dramatic music.