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Rob Curley: Coronavirus not only makes communities sick, it has infected local journalism, too

The thankful emails come daily. In droves. The voicemails warm the heart. Even the posts on social media feel, dare we say it, nice. Even appreciative.

Local journalism has never felt more important. The coronavirus has changed the world in immeasurable and devastating ways, but it also has made communities across the nation fall back in love with local newspapers.

It doesn’t matter if you get it home delivered or if you read it on your computer or if you’re now consuming nearly every word on your mobile phone, COVID-19 has reminded people – while teaching others – that when you really need local news, there’s nothing like a good local newspaper. That’s what makes what is currently happening to local papers across the country, both dailies and weeklies, so cruel.

At a moment when local journalists are experiencing a renaissance of relevance, an already damaged economic model got even sicker. Just another victim of this damn illness.

The subscriptions – both for print and digital – are way up. The online numbers are unlike any of us have seen. They’re also a stark reminder that subscribers, and certainly not web traffic, ever really paid for a newspaper and all of its journalists. Ads paid the bills. More specifically, print ads still pay a whole lot of the bills … and not just at The Spokesman-Review, but at most daily newspapers across the country.

Right now, the only way to seemingly keep COVID-19 at bay is to lock large populations in their homes. Which means the stores are closed. And the restaurants are closed. And the games aren’t being played. And the concerts and shows are quiet.

Those just happen to be the majority of the local advertisers in a newspaper. With them gone, all of those articles that have become must-read also have become big money losers. When all you’ve dreamed of is documenting a community’s living history and then being there for the big story at the exact time when your neighbors need that news the most, it feels more than just unfair. It rips your First Amendment-loving heart out.

But that’s where we are. And there’s no miracle medicine gonna fix what ails the news industry just when local journalism is needed most.

Some newspapers, with newsrooms already cut to the bone, have started to get rid of even more reporters. Others are turning to furloughs or cutting salaries. Last week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer – once one of the nation’s most important newspapers and certainly one of its best named – laid off its health reporter. During a pandemic.

Well, they got rid of their health reporter and more than 20 other journalists.

Other newspapers have responded to the recent revenue hemorrhaging by cutting publication days. The Oregonian slashed home delivery of its paper to four days back in 2013. The Tampa Bay Times – long envied by journalists across the nation not only for its historically impactful journalism, but also for its longtime ownership by a well-funded nonprofit – recently laid off reporters and cut print publication days.

Yes, one of the best newspaper markets in the nation has gone from recently having multiple daily newspapers to not even having one daily newspaper. Starting this week, the Tampa Bay Times now will only print two newspapers a week, Wednesday and Sunday.

Around the country

A quick glance at how newspapers around the country have dealt with financial woes of the industry, which have been accelerated by COVID-19:

  • The Gannett newspaper chain, including USA Today, is furloughing employees. Many who make $38,000 a year or more will be required to take a week of unpaid leave.
  • The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, the largest newspaper in Ohio, laid off 22 newsroom employees on Friday. The Plain Dealer is part of Advance Publications, which also owns the Oregonian, the largest newspaper in Oregon. The Oregonian cut home delivery to four days in 2013.
  • The Tampa Bay Times reduced print publication from seven days a week to two – Sunday and Wednesday. Last month, the Times laid off 11 journalists.
  • MediaNews Group (MNG), formerly Digital First Media, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, made unannounced cuts this week. The Denver Post, already hard hit by cuts, laid off 13 employees and the Boston Herald laid off six.
  • MNG’s Southern California papers, including the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Daily News and nine others, lost six newsroom employees and sports and features staffers were furloughed for two weeks.
  • The Dallas Morning News announced pay reductions for the newsroom staff. A 3% cut for those making less than $45,000 and an 8% cut for those making more than $45,000.
  • The Adams Publishing Group, which owns dailies and weeklies in 22 states, including the Idaho Press in Nampa, reduced work weeks from 40 hours to 30, a 25% pay cut.
  • Lee Enterprises, the fourth-largest newspaper chain in America, announced pay reductions or furloughs equivalent to two weeks of salary.

So, that brings us to The Spokesman-Review. Starting Saturday, April 25, our newspaper will not publish seven days a week for the first time in more than a century. It’s quite likely that these next two Saturday newspapers will also be our last two.

There’s some degree of trade-off here. Even with the mounting losses, we probably could have figured out a way to not cut a day, but every one of those solutions involved journalists losing their jobs. And right now, the world needs more journalism, not less.

If you’re a seven-day subscriber to The Spokesman-Review, you aren’t going to get less. The pages from the Saturday newspaper will be distributed to the other days of the week. We aren’t going to have fewer reporters. We aren’t going to have fewer photographers. We’re keeping everybody. Most of them are working at home, so they can be safe from the virus’ spread.

They’re all going to write the same amount of stories, take the same amount of photos, draw the same amount of illustrations and design the same amount of pages. All of those things will still be delivered in slightly bigger weekday papers and a much bigger Sunday paper. Even the Saturday comics, puzzles and TV listings. You’re still going to get all of it.

Just not thrown on your porch each Saturday.

And if you read the e-Edition of our newspaper on your computer, tablet or phone, you’re still going to get a Saturday paper. Yes, along with keeping our website updated 24 hours a day and seven days a week, we’re still going to produce a digital version of the Saturday newspaper that looks just like what you’re used to.

None of these things are about making more money. Hardly. This newspaper hasn’t been in a position like that for years.

The Spokesman-Review is different from most modern newspapers in a very old-fashioned way: It’s still owned by people who live in our hometown. They shop in the same local stores as us. Their children went to the same schools ours attend. They drive on the same streets we do, while trying to avoid the same potholes.

And they also all subscribe to this newspaper.

Most newspapers are now owned by huge, debt-ridden corporations or by blood-sucking hedge funds. They’ve made recent decisions to cut because of demands from banks or shareholders. And those decisions were driven by profit. They see what is happening with the coronavirus and immediately wonder about the stability of their portfolio instead of the stability of a community.

Local owners make decisions that might not pay off for a quarter century, whereas corporate owners make decisions based upon the next fiscal quarter. It’s one of the benefits of having a family own a newspaper for more than 135 years instead of some anonymous hedge fund that isn’t even sure what exactly it owns anymore … let alone if it’s a local newspaper or not.

It’s about still having a great local newspaper in your hometown. When it’s needed most.

It reminds me of all of those notes, emails and voicemails we’ve received over the last month telling us how thankful people are to still be getting a local paper created by a newsroom full of people busting their backsides to keep our readers informed, entertained and enlightened. Especially during these confusing times of isolation.

Even if our journalists can’t actually go into their newsroom anymore.

But knowing our neighbors are turning to us more and more each day matters. In fact, we’re the ones who are the most thankful.

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