America’s local newspapers confront an apocalypse

With each passing week, the torrent of dire news about COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, intensifies across the United States. So, too, does the torrent of dire news about the newspapers bringing you the dire news.

For the local-media business, last week was the bleakest since this crisis began. Last Monday, the Advocate, a high-profile Louisiana title that acquired the New Orleans Times-Picayune last year, said it was “temporarily furloughing” about 40 of its staff and implementing four-day work weeks for everyone else. The same day, Seven Days, an alt-weekly in Vermont, cut seven staffers, also “temporarily”; Trib Total Media, a Pittsburgh-area publisher that already made layoffs linked to the coronavirus, rolled two print editions into one to cut costs; and San Diego Magazine announced that it’s folding completely. (It hopes to reopen once this mess is over.) Last Tuesday, another city magazine—D Magazine, in Dallas—laid off 15 people and cut the salaries of staffers who were retained. On Wednesday, the publisher of Rhode Island’s Warwick Beacon—a twice-weekly newspaper that, thanks to the current crisis, is now a weekly newspaper—cut eight staffers, including himself; C&G Newspapers, a family-owned business in Michigan, suspended publication of 19 print titles; and the Snowmass Sun, a small newspaper in Colorado, was incorporated as a section of a different paper, the Aspen Times. On Thursday, the publisher of the Aspen Daily News suspended one of its other titles, the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal, to focus on its core product.

Related: No, journalism can’t wait until ‘after this war is over’

The list goes on, at an ever-quicker pace. Yesterday alone, we saw a slew of cuts at important titles across the country. The LA Times reportedly moved to consolidate print sections. VTDigger, a decade-old nonprofit newsroom in Vermont, cut three staffers—the first layoffs it’s ever made. The Tampa Bay Timeswhich already laid off 11 journalists this month, for non-coronavirus reasonssaid it would furlough some staff, cut the pay of others, and print on Wednesdays and Sundays only for the duration of the crisis. Gabrielle Calise, a reporter at the paper, said on Twitter that for the next two months, paid leave or vacation will not be granted.

Also yesterday, Gannett—which was already America’s biggest newspaper chain by circulation, and grew bigger still when it merged with GateHouse last yeartold staff that it, too, will be making cuts due to the coronavirus. Employees who make more than $38,000 a year can expect to be furloughed for five days of each of the next three months; while that situation is ongoing, executives will take a 25-percent pay cut, and Paul Bascobert, Gannett’s CEO, will not take a salary at all. (According to Maxwell Tani, of the Daily Beast, the company’s post-merger push to eliminate “inefficiencies”—which already led to job losses—will continue.) Emily Bloch, an education reporter at the Florida Times-Union, in Jacksonville, tweeted yesterday that she’ll be among those affected by the mass furlough. Her salary? $38,001.60.

Yesterday wasn’t just a bad day for local outlets. Sports Illustrated—no stranger to layoffs of late—cut a further six percent of its editorial staff; staffers told Ben Strauss, of the Washington Post, that the magazine’s union organizing committee was not notified of the layoffs ahead of time, and that three female staffers were among those affected, “leaving a predominantly male newsroom with even less diversity.” And according to Tani, management at Vice Media told staffers that employees making over $100,000 annually will take pay cuts, rising to 50 percent for Nancy Dubuc, the CEO; some executives will be furloughed, and the company will stop matching 401k contributions for now. (BuzzFeed announced a similar program of top-down salary reductions last week.)

Sign up for CJR's daily email

As Ken Doctor wrote for Nieman Lab yesterday, there’s a cruel irony in the present industry hellscape. “The amount of time Americans spend with journalists’ work and their willingness to pay for it have both spiked, higher than at any point since Election 2016, maybe before,” he noted. “But the business that has supported these journalists—shakily, on wobbly wheels—now finds the near future almost impossible to navigate.” Principally, advertising revenue has cratered—because many advertisers are hurting right now, and because some big companies who still have ad budgets don’t want their brands associated with wall-to-wall coronavirus content. “This event isn’t just a black swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s parlance for an unexpected happening that forever alters the course of history,” Doctor wrote. “It’s a flock of black swans.”

It’s important to remember, amid all this, that the coronavirus didn’t cause the news industry’s woes. Decades of decline—some of it precipitated by factors outside publishers’ control; much of it by their own mismanagement—has weakened local newspapers, in particular, to a point where much lesser a crisis than this would be almost impossible to withstand. The virus, however, has greatly accelerated all our problems at once, at a time when everything else is on fire, too.

In recent days, the steady drip of proposals to put the media business on a more sustainable footing has also quickened, and become more radical; we’ve seen calls suggesting everything from a federal stimulus package for journalism, to letting big corporate newsroom chains die in favor of a digital, nonprofit future. Such debate is welcome—but big, outside-the-box solutions will take time and resources to implement, and we’re very short on time and resources right now. In the meantime, we should brace for more job losses—and for furloughs to become layoffs, cutbacks to become closures, and “temporary” suspensions to become permanent.

Below, more on the coronavirus:


Other notable stories:

  • For a new report, Anthony Nadler, A.J. Bauer, and Magda Konieczna, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, interviewed 22 staffers at 14 online conservative outlets to find out how they conceive of their work. “Our interviews suggest that contemporary conservative news workers are grappling with many of the same questions and dilemmas as digital journalists at nonpartisan outlets,” Nadler, Bauer, and Konieczna write for CJR.
  • Jim Rutenberg and Matthew Rosenberg, of the Times, explore Democrats’ efforts to “take back” the internet from Trump. “So far, the Democrats and their allies have produced new apps to organize volunteers and register voters, new media outlets to pump out anti-Trump content, and a major new data initiative” to mobilize voters, they write—but the effort “has been slowed by the party’s deep-rooted rivalries and divisions.”
  • And Joe Biden has a podcast now. It’s called Here’s the Deal, and features Biden in conversation with “national top experts”; for the first episode, he spoke with Ron Klain, his former chief of staff who also served as Obama’s Ebola czar. NBC News has more.

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.