Bad news for small town papers

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: another coronavirus side-effect.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: People depend on news outlets for information about what’s going on around the globe and in their own backyards. But, like many of the businesses you just heard about, small town newspapers are struggling to make ends meet. WORLD reporter Anna Johansen has the story.

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: On February 3rd, Hannah Saunders started her first post-college job … covering the cops and courts beat for a local news group called Sound Publishing in Washington state. A few weeks later, Kirkland, Washington, became the first U-S hotspot for COVID-19. That’s right in Hannah Saunders’ backyard.

SAUNDERS: We were pumping out articles just on top of covering the coronavirus for seven different cities.

She says it was a lot, but she and her fellow reporters felt up to the challenge.

SAUNDERS: Our editor the Friday before had given us a little pep talk. He’s like, I want you guys to go out there and own it. I remember him saying, this could be your Pulitzer.

Just a few days later, all that changed.

SAUNDERS: We had a call at like 11 o’clock, I want to say. And it was just like, sorry. All of the reporters are furloughed. You’re done at 5:00 p.m., you won’t be working tomorrow. 

Now, just two editors are keeping the newsroom running. Maddi Miller says she can only imagine how tough that must be.

MILLER: It’s down to the two of them, but their hours have also been cut from 40 hours a week to 24 hours a week. 

Miller is a WORLD Journalism Institute graduate. She worked at Sound Publishing for two years, then landed a new position at a different news group. In early February, she put in her two weeks’ notice at Sound Publishing. But on her last day there, she got a call from her new company.

MILLER: They called me actually in tears saying, you know, that they couldn’t believe that they had to do this and that the over 20 years that they’d been in business, they had never had to lay anyone off.

The company couldn’t afford to hire her and they had to lay off four other reporters, too. Miller says there’s one main reason for that.

MILLER: Their main source of revenue is through advertising. Now with this pandemic, um, no one’s, no one’s taking out ads for anything because everything is closed. Their main source of income is just gone, it’s just absolutely gone.

The decline in print advertising has made things tough for newspapers for years—even without a pandemic. Now, the coronavirus is exacerbating that problem. Newsrooms across the United States are working to adapt to the new reality.

GRAY: We’re a really small, locally owned a paper that’s business focused here in El Paso. Um, so our team is quite small. 

Robby Gray is the editor of El Paso Inc., a local weekly newspaper in South Texas. He says the pandemic has impacted his team members in a variety of ways. They’re all working remotely and doing a lot more cold calls. They’ve also had to pick up the pace: The team is set up for weekly publication.

GRAY: But now we’re covering a story that’s really breaking at a fast pace that’s very big. And the weekly schedule doesn’t really work. I mean, what we talk about in our Monday news meeting is probably not what’s happening by the end of the week. 

They’ve had to adapt to a faster paced schedule: Daily web updates, social media posts. Even the photographer has had to get creative.

GRAY: Even just looking at the streets here, looking at companies, looking at events, I mean, so much is just not happening. So even having something to take a photo of is a challenge.

But the company hasn’t had to cut any staff. No furloughs or layoffs. Gray attributes that to being a niche publication with a close relationship to the community. So even as companies and advertisers look to more and more budget cuts, they see Gray and his team as a valuable asset. 

GRAY: I think, while local news can sometimes come across as maybe a little cheesy sometimes or very local at times like this, I think people really realize how valuable it can be. When you hear about millions being impacted worldwide, it’s hard to grasp. When you hear that your neighbor died from COVID-19, that hits close to home.

Maddi Miller says a lot of those local stories are going unreported because of all the layoffs and furloughs. 

And, of course, all those reporters are left without work. Miller says she’s done some freelance reporting.

MILLER: It doesn’t pay a whole lot, but it’s enough to keep me a little bit afloat and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

Hannah Saunders has thought about freelancing, but she doesn’t feel like she has enough connections.

SAUNDERS: I am only 22 years old. I have just started working. So I just, I had no idea what to do in terms of freelance.

Her furlough is supposed to end April 27th. But that depends on whether or not businesses start opening back up. So for now, she’s just waiting to see if things go back to normal.

Robby Gray says this time has been hard, but it’s also forcing his team to think outside the box. And some of those new practices might stick around even after the pandemic.

GRAY: I think we will come away with a greater confidence of working in different ways that we would never have been forced to do before. But we are ready to get back to the newsroom.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.


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