NY community papers struggle post-Sandy

Small papers were washed away when their readers most needed them, and they're still recovering

The Wave offices, post-Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Henry Gass

During Hurricane Sandy, the offices of The Wave, a community newspaper in the Rockaways, Queens, got hit by a five-foot tidal surge.

Now the paper’s general manager, Sanford Bernstein, is figuring out how to publish his weekly newspaper with half the equipment, a bare-bones staff, and almost no advertising to speak of. He’s worried about going out of business.

But he isn’t alone. Local newspapers in all the areas worst affected by Sandy, from the Rockaways, to Red Hook, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan, suddenly find themselves facing the possibly lethal combination of drastic shortages in staff, equipment, and advertising revenue, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair costs. The advertising crunch will persist until local businesses decimated by the storm can recover. Already operating under tight budgets, some newspapers may not be able to afford to keep publishing that long.

The Wave, founded in 1893, went more than two weeks before its office got electricity back after the October 29 storm. In that time, gas shortages slowed their efforts to pump water out of the gutted office, so large, hissing plastic tubes still snaked through it, pumping water away. A month after the storm knocked them out, The Wave published its first post-Sandy issue.

Outside, every store on their block on Rockaway Beach Boulevard is still shuttered. Some businesses, like the Super Wok Chinese restaurant on the corner, have collapsed.
Bernstein inspected the shadowy office which, two weeks post-storm, was lit by three generator-powered lamps. He ducked under the hissing plastic tubes. The ocean clung stubbornly to the office—everything still felt submerged. The carpet was coated with a firm layer of mud. Desks were littered with washed-out keyboards and police scanners. Above the waterline, family photos pinned to cubicle walls were untouched.

“It’s 80 percent better than when we found it,” said Bernstein, smiling uncomfortably.

A couple weeks later, the entire office was stripped bare. Upwards of 70 percent of the paper’s archives, comprised of nearly a century’s worth of issues, have been destroyed. Bernstein estimates it could cost as much as $50,000 just to clean up. Once they start replacing equipment and getting back to full capacity, costs may reach almost a quarter of their annual expenses. The paper has flood insurance, he said, “but not nearly enough to cover it.” No one’s been paid since the storm.

“I doubt my income will be anything like it used to be,” Bernstein said. “A lot of businesses got damaged. How many of them are going to come back” and advertise?

To make matters worse, the advertising crash has hit at the start of the holidays, usually one of the most lucrative times of year for selling ads. Kimberly Price, co-publisher of the bimonthly Red Hook Star-Revue, is worried about the paper’s economic prospects even though the office didn’t suffer any significant damage.

“It’s a little bit scary right now for us,” she said. “We were working with a tiny budget to begin with.”

Price was exhausted when reached by phone last week. She had just been producing the first paper of the month—a few days later than usual because of the storm. She said that while the paper is looking for advertisers in less affected areas, that strategy is unlikely to be a long-term solution.

“It really depends on how quickly Red Hook rebuilds, it really depends on how many of the businesses back there decide to stay,” she said.

Jere Hester, a professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, said the next few weeks and months will be the most perilous for community newspapers hit hard by Sandy.

“The local advertising market for the past several years has already been shrinking for publications and outlets of all types and sizes,” he said. “You just hope that both”—local businesses and newspapers—“have enough capital in reserves to keep it going.”

Hester called local coverage of Sandy “incredible,” especially given the fact that many of the reporters and editors at local papers are suffering as residents of the affected communities.

Amid the gloom, though, some believe that Sandy could actually help affected papers.
Ken Akulin, general manager of Long Island City-based Stellar Printing, is one industry veteran who shares this opinion.

“Everyone now is interested in what happened in their particular neighborhood. What trees are down? Is the post office open?” said Akulin, whose clients include many of the neighborhood and ethnic newspapers in the city, including The Wave.

Indeed, some local newspapers are throwing themselves into storm coverage despite their limited resources. While scaling back print circulation and publishing more online might make more long-term business sense, especially with electricity now returning to the most devastated areas of the city, several editors said that returning the print newspaper to their neighborhoods could provide a comforting return to normalcy for residents.

To that end, Jennifer Goodstein, publisher of The Villager and several other small papers in lower Manhattan, launched a new weekly paper last week called NYC Reconnects. She said the purpose of the paper is to unite those in need with resources and volunteers, and it will be distributed exclusively to the devastated neighborhoods below 23rd Street.

Goodstein returned to The Villager office the day after Sandy hit to find the basement flooded with six feet of seawater. Eight decades of newspaper archives were destroyed. The paper has been nomadic ever since, spending its first week after the hurricane working out of the CUNY journalism school. It is now renting a temporary office at MetroTech, a multipurpose office building in Brooklyn Heights.

While the paper hasn’t missed an issue since the storm, a full financial recovery would have to move in lockstep with local business, Goodstein said.

“We won’t be out of the woods until they’re out of the woods,” she said.

Some papers are adapting their advertising post-Sandy. Mark Weidler, publisher of the Queens Chronicle, said the paper has made up half its lost advertising revenue through hurricane-related ads. Some of these include ads from a junk car company, construction companies, and electricians, he said.

The Chronicle—which suffered little damage to its office—also hosted the staff of The Forum, the Howard Beach community newspaper, for the first week after the storm.

Chronicle Editor in Chief Peter Mastrosimone said The Forum’s office had been “essentially destroyed.”

The Wave staff is now working out of an office one floor above their old one. It’s half the size, equipped with hand-built desks and donated computers, and isn’t big enough to house the entire staff, Bernstein said. He expects them to be there for six to nine months.
The building still doesn’t have hot water back, and the original ground floor office is now stripped bare. Bernstein doesn’t know if he’ll bother moving back there. He doesn’t know much at this point; he’s just waiting for business to return.

“We’re going to be publishing, but I think it’s going to be a struggle,” he said.

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Henry Gass is a student at the Columbia Journalism School. His work has appeared in the Queens Chronicle and The Indypendent Tags: