COVID-19 is the story of this century, and many newspapers may not survive to cover it

April 6, 2020 12:01 am

The former Virginian-Pilot building in Norfolk. (Style Weekly)

Every detail of the interview for my first full-time newspaper job editing a small Mississippi Delta weekly remains vivid and indelible in my memory.

The paper’s owner asked me what the first duty of a newspaper was, and I was ready with a load of fresh journalism school rhetoric about being a good steward of an informed community by raising important issues to the level of public debate and …

Wham! His palm slammed onto his cluttered desktop and he cut me off. “No, the first job of a newspaper is to make money!”

He was right – then and now. And that’s the existential issue confronting local newspapers that have endured ebbing revenues for two decades only to face unprecedented business shutdowns over a global virus pandemic.

Once upon a time, owning a local newspaper supported by advertising revenue was essentially a franchise to print money. For just pennies a month, subscribers got fat bundles of folded newsprint home delivered, rain or shine, mornings and afternoons. They provided unmatched reporting on our city halls, statehouses, Washington and mysterious overseas datelines. They brought us crossword puzzles and “Beetle Bailey.” They chronicled our births, weddings and deaths, and summarized ballgames and long lists of daily stock prices in neat, gray columns of tiny six-point type.

Advertisers, not subscribers, underwrote nearly all of it.

Papers began losing circulation to the Internet in the late 1990s. It worsened with the miniaturization and mobility of interconnected devices and the development of digital channels that enable instant and interactive communication. The Great Recession of 2008-09 took away advertisers who never returned. In newspaper newsrooms across the country, staff headcounts fell by 46 percent, from 71,000 in 2008 to 38,000 in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now comes COVID-19, a virus humans have never encountered, leaving them with no acquired immunity and no vaccines. It has driven people the world over into home seclusion to thwart its spread. Last week, the Labor Department announced that an unprecedented 10 million Americans had filed new unemployment claims in just two weeks, and the White House projected that even if all precautions go perfectly, up to a quarter of a million Americans will die. Without precautions, the toll could spiral into the millions.

It’s the story of this century, and many newspapers may not be around by the time it ends.

If you sense my bias in support of newspapers and their staffs, guilty as charged. I spent 35 years in the service of news, particularly newspapers, and I loved it. Watching the industry’s latest struggles and the fear its workers live with daily is wrenching.

Major U.S. newspaper chains, including Gannett, America’s largest and publisher of USA Today, and Lee Enterprises, whose 13 Virginia papers include the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Roanoke Times, have imposed staff pay reductions or intermittent furloughs over the next three months.

The Tampa Bay Times has cut its print edition frequency from daily to twice a week. A chain of community papers in the suburbs of Chicago last week closed forever after the coronavirus destroyed its advertising base. The McClatchy newspaper chain, owner of such nationally prominent nameplates as the Miami Herald and The Charlotte Observer, sought bankruptcy protection in February, before the coronavirus outbreak did its worst damage to the U.S. economy. Tribune Publishing consolidated its Virginia holdings, the Daily Press in Newport News and The Virginian-Pilot earlier this year, offering buyouts to some of the papers’ senior journalists and closing the Pilot’s Norfolk office. 

“I am texting and calling and FaceTiming with colleagues because we’re all working apart. There is incredible fear right now,” said Sara Gregory, who covers the education beat for the Pilot.

To help out, she organized a GoFundMe effort, the Virginia Is For Journalists Relief Fund, on Thursday morning. By Friday afternoon, 129 donors had given more than $7,200 – much of it from working journalists. Reporters and editors who need help dealing with the furloughs and pay cuts can apply for aid from the fund.

The newspaper industry’s preparedness obituary was pre-written many years ago and filed away, awaiting the dreaded right moment. Has it arrived?

“I don’t believe that the death of the industry has happened or that they’re necessarily the walking dead, though many papers are ghosts of what they were,” said Rick Edmonds, a veteran newspaperman who is now a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a globally respected training ground for journalists.

“They’re trying to regroup into something else,” he said.

By that, he means something more financially sustainable that can provide the depth and breadth of coverage local papers provided their communities.

“I don’t think there is a replacement system, no hero, no knight on a white horse to rush in and provide what newspapers provide us. There are elements of it. NPR (National Public Radio) does some great reporting. There are digital startups, and there’s local TV. But the particular focus and the capacity of newspapers is a big element that won’t be easy to replace,” Edmonds said.

One such online startup is The Virginia Mercury, an independent nonprofit that opened in Richmond in 2019 by States Newsroom, a 501(c)(3) organization that operates publications in 11 states and partners with outlets in four others. One of the first nonprofit publications, The Texas Tribune, has operated successfully since 2009, and newsrooms adopting a similar model have opened in many state capitals and a few large cities.

Journalists don’t get into the business to get rich. About eight in 10 newsroom employees in America have college degrees, yet college-educated newsroom staffers earn less than workers in all other industries and occupations, a 2018 Pew study found. The median annual earnings of degreed newsroom employees was $51,000 compared with $59,000 for all other college-educated workers, the study shows. And now, that is being reduced.

“It’s one of the reasons you see more unionization in newspapers in Virginia and nationally,” Gregory said. “I know folks who’ve gone a decade or more without a raise while health insurance costs go up, rent goes up and the cost of living goes up.”

Journalism is a calling, and those lacking it don’t stick around long. They’re as varied as society itself, from all backgrounds and beliefs. In my years, we toiled and came of age in a culture that was both collaborative and competitive, where deadline pressure never abates, and where irascible, sometimes profane editors demanded both speed and accuracy, even as they mentored, consoled and encouraged their reporters.

Reporters covered unspeakable heartbreak like natural disasters and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, swallowing back the sorrow ripping at their own hearts to ensure that it didn’t upstage the news. Together and without reservation, we enveloped colleagues in times of trouble and celebrated the triumphs of others, even when it sent a close friend away for a bigger, more lucrative job.

Many are gone now, victims of layoffs, buyouts and short-sighted downsizings, and their priceless decades of experience, perspective and institutional memory left with them. Those on the watch today cover more with less. They’re tech-savvy, resourceful and nimble, but they’re outgunned by PR and communications shops with endless arrays of digital channels they can use to flood the market with commercial or political messages.

“I worry about its effect on the republic. Fairly aggressive (government) accountability is critical. You need a good forum that goes beyond sound bites,” Edmonds said. “Weaken those things and you weaken democracy.”

And that’s not good news at all.


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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]