How metro papers are dealing with the pressure of COVID-19

Note: I originally wrote this for the newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact an ever-widening group of cities and states, it is challenging media outlets both big and small — not just because it puts pressure on already stretched newsrooms in terms of reporting resources, but because it is also affecting the financial side of the industry, with advertising revenue declines of 20 percent in some cases. How are metropolitan and regional media outlets handling this kind of pressure, while also reporting on one of the biggest stories in recent memory? How are they making sure that their staff are taking care of themselves, even as newsrooms put in long hours — many of them working remotely in large numbers for the first time? This week on CJR’s Galley platform, we’ve been talking with editors and managers at a number of medium-sized newspapers and websites such as the Arizona Republic, Philadelphia Inquirer, Seattle Times, Dallas Morning News, Maine Today, and Salt Lake Tribune to see how they are coping.

Kim Bui, the director of audience innovation at the Arizona Republic, says her organization was cautious about being too alarmist in covering the virus in its initial stages, since the state only had one case. But as the impact of the pandemic started to become obvious, coverage ramped up, and Bui says she and the rest of the newsroom took their cues about what to cover from readers. “The good thing about interacting with them is that we know that what they are interested in is the impact on their daily lives,” she says. “How does this change my work? My kids’ school? What do I do if I feel sick? We’re trying to base coverage off of that for the core team and I and the other news directors assign out impact stories as relevant.”

Like a lot of newsrooms, the Dallas Morning News has pivoted from longer-term projects to an all-hands-on-deck approach, says Mike Orren, chief product officer at the Morning News and president of Belo Business Intelligence. But unlike some other outlets that have put all their coronavirus coverage outside the paywall, Orren says the Morning News has only made some of its content free. The paper started out with everything virus-related outside the wall, he says, but “after a few days, we talked to some of our peers and we found that we weren’t seeing the same subscription bump they were. So we pivoted and made just the ‘public health’ content free, meaning that a school closing was free, but a celebrity’s opinion was in our normal meter.”

The Salt Lake Tribune is in an even more challenging position than some other outlets, because the paper just recently transformed itself into a non-profit enterprise, one of the first to do so. “Before COVID-19 struck, we were busy getting the business functions ready, setting up a board of directors, updating the website — then coronavirus and an earthquake last week complicated things. But we’re still moving ahead,” said Jennifer Napier-Pearce, editor of the Tribune. Since we got our nonprofit approval, we’ve been fundraising so those donations and philanthropy will give us a much-needed cushion right now. But the long-term economic effects of coronavirus remain to be seen. Certainly, much of our advertising involved live events and retail, and those sectors are being hit very hard right now.”

Lisa DeSisto is the CEO of Masthead Maine, which owns the Portland Press Herald, Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal, Sun Journal and Times Record. She said that even though the group’s coronavirus coverage is all free of charge, all the papers have been seeing a significant increase in subscriptions, with many readers saying “Your coverage is more vital than ever and I want to support you.” However, she also said that because of the decline in advertising, the group is trying to reduce the number of pages in its print editions to save money (all of the chain’s daily papers moved to digital-only Monday editions earlier this month). CJR will be continuing this week’s discussion with a roundtable on Thursday and Friday, involving some or all of the interviewees we’ve been speaking with, as well as questions from readers of the Lenfest Institute’s Solution Set newsletter, written by Joseph Lichterman.

Here’s more on how newsrooms are handling COVID-19:

Story of a lifetime: Kim Bui said at the Arizona Republic “we’re trying to be as kind as we can, and I’ve repeated that leaders need to model the behavior that we expect from others — Sign off, take a break, over-communicate, do video chats as often as you can. Over the weekend I did some origami and wrote some letters. I’m trying to remember that this is…….extraordinary. This is the story of a lifetime, so we need to pace ourselves through it so we can help people understand the world around them, and how its’ changing.” Steve Greenlee, managing editor of the Portland Press Herald, said “We’re making it clear that we don’t want everyone working 24/7, and we’ll continue to do that. We’ve also told our folks that we don’t want them putting themselves at risk. No story, no photograph is worth risking your health.”

Subscriptions strong: Kati Erwert, senior vice-president of product, marketing, and public service at the Seattle Times, says that readership stats at the paper have been “off the charts.” Many news stories are seeing two to three times as many unique visitors as they would normally, she says, and in some cases they are at 10 times normal levels. “Subscriptions are incredibly strong, trending about two to three times where we normally are at this time of the year/month,” she said. Although the paper has reduced its reliance on advertising to the point where subscriptions now account for 60 percent of revenue, however, Erwert said the drop in ads still has an impact, and “the declines are alarming.”

Philanthropy matters: Gabriel Escobar, editor and vice-president of the Philadelphia Inquirer LLC, which includes the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer.com, says he isn’t concerned about the financial impact of the ad slowdown as a result of the coronavirus. “We are owned by the non-profit Lenfest Institute for Journalism so philanthropy is an important part of our present and our future,” he says. Katie Erwert of the Seattle Times said being family-owned (the publisher is the fourth generation of the Blethen family to run the paper) “is a key differentiator in so many ways. They live here. They work here. The impact to our community is felt deeply because they are of this community.”

Texting the news: Bui says the Arizona Republic has been experimenting with a number of different ways of interacting with readers, including a subscription text-messaging service called Subtext. There are now about 500 people using the service, which allows them to get news headlines, but also reply to Republic staffers with their experiences or perspective. “We text roughly twice a day, once with case numbers, and then another with something else I think people need to know about,” says Bui. “I’m trying to answer most replies and people really love the feeling of the one-on-one feeling. I think people are really scared and overwhelmed, so I’ve gotten a bunch of comments about how nice it is that we have an upbeat tone. I write it like I’m texting my friends.”

Other notable stories:

BuzzFeed is cutting salaries as the company attempts to weather the coronavirus pandemic, according to an internal memo obtained by The Daily Beast. The company announced a graduated salary reduction for the majority of employees for the months of April and May. Those in the lowest group, including anyone making under $65,000 a year, would see their salaries cut by five percent, while those whose pay is between $65,000 and $90,000 would see a reduction of seven percent. Executives will see their pay cut by between 14 and 25 percent, the memo said, and CEO Jonah Peretti told staff that he “will not be taking a salary until we are on the other side of this crisis.” The Spanish newspaper El Diario said that it will cut newsroom salaries by between 10 and 30 percent “to avoid dismissals while we have another option.”

A public radio station in Washington state, KUOW, will no longer be airing White House press briefings on the coronavirus live as a result of what it called “a pattern of false or misleading information provided that cannot be fact checked in real time,” according to a report by The Hill. The station said in a statement posted on Twitter that it would be monitoring White House briefings for the latest news on the coronavirus, and would “continue to share all news relevant to Washington State with our listeners.” Producers for CNN and MSNBC told The Daily Beast they are considering cutting away from Trump’s briefings. “We might take it from the top and then cut away after the first lie, and return when the lies stop,” said one cable-network producer.

Many small towns in the UK will be without a newspaper after JPI Media, which owns dozens of titles, told staff on Wednesday that all of its free newspapers delivered door-to-door would temporarily stop printing due to the logistical challenges of arranging delivery during the coronavirus pandemic, alongside the catastrophic collapse in the local advertising market. It will leave hundreds of thousands of people without their only local print newspaper, cutting off many self-isolating older readers from a key trusted source of news during the crisis.

The pressure on advertising revenue is also hitting a lot of small dailies and weeklies in the US, writes Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. “Already under pressure from changes in technology and the decline of advertising, alternative weeklies and small dailies are teetering on the brink,” he says. “Reporters have been laid off. Print editions have been suspended or cut back. Donations are being sought. And journalists everywhere are wondering if they have a future.”

A newspaper chain in Canada’s Atlantic provinces says it is laying off 40 percent of its workforce and shutting down all of its weekly newspapers in Newfoundland and Labrador, and in Nova Scotia, as advertising revenues have plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The SaltWire Network said it will continue to publish its four daily publications in St. John’s, Halifax, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island. In addition to laying off 40 percent of its staff, the company said that remaining employees who earn “over a certain amount” will also have their work week reduced.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the 2020 presidential race, Tom Kludt of Vanity Fair writes, leaving many of the “boys (and girls) on the bus” to watch the campaigns via Zoom teleconferencing, or sit at their laptops to see Joe Biden stream a press conference from his Wilmington rec room. “So much of politics is what happens behind-the-scenes or along the sidelines of these events,” Ken Thomas of the Wall Street Journal told Kludt. “It’s much more of a challenge to capture all the things that are happening in this campaign when you’re forced to stay in your house.”

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes for CJR about how the coronavirus is “spawning a global press-freedom crackdown.” Governments around the world are cracking down on journalists and implementing sweeping restrictions under the guise of combating misinformation and “fake news,” he writes. Police in Venezuela violently detained a journalist and social media commentator, Darvinson Rojas, in reprisal for reporting on COVID-19 in Miranda State. And in Iran, the government has imposed sweeping restrictions on coverage as part of a systematic effort to downplay the scope of the public health crisis.

Those who follow the news via social media are the least likely to be informed about the coronavirus, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center on Journalism and the Media. About 40 percent of those who say they depend on social media for their political and election news are likely to say they are following news about the outbreak very closely, the lowest percentage of any news pathway the Pew survey asked about. The next lowest in the rankings are those who mostly rely on local TV and radio for their news, with 44 percent saying they are following COVID-19 coverage very closely. That compares with 65 percent of cable news watchers.

A tweet by conservative online magazine The Federalist, which suggested people should deliberately infect themselves with the coronavirus strain COVID-19, has been pulled after it “violated” Twitter’s recently updated rules on health-related misinformation, according to a report at TechCrunch. The infringing tweet, posted on Wednesday morning, said: “It is time to think outside the box and seriously consider a somewhat unconventional approach to COVID-19: controlled voluntary infection.” A spokesperson for Twitter confirmed the tweet violated its new coronavirus-related rules.

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