The COVID-19 pandemic may be the single greatest defining event for local print publications reshaping distribution, advertising, staffing and community engagement. Unfortunately, for a number of local dailies, alternatives, weeklies and free publications, the pandemic could be an extinction-level event.
Local publications have been slashing staff, cutting print frequency and reducing pay to bring down top-line costs as advertising revenue has plummeted as much as 60 percent as shelter-in-place orders went into effect. But the lockdown has people clamoring for local information. Traffic to newspaper websites has been up by triple digits with readers wanting to know about things like infection counts, COVID-19 deaths, where to get tested, and what’s open.
“This is the perfect example of ‘all news is local,’” said Jed Williams, chief strategy officer for the Local Media Association. “We all need to be very much in touch with what’s going on around us.”
Williams was one of the first of a series of media industry experts and executives to join E&P publisher Mike Blinder on the E&P Reports podcasts to talk about COVID-19’s effect on the industry, resources available and what happens next.
The print news industry was already struggling in a number of markets. Debt-laden hedge funds had been slashing staff and cutting print frequency to reduce costs long before COVID-19 started its lethal spread. Also, local and family-owned outlets have been coping with dwindling advertising dollars and shrinking circulation. The virus just accelerated things.
“What we see is this: If you are getting decimated on advertising but advertising is only 30 percent of your revenue model, this really hurts but it’s not an extinction-level event,” said Earl Wilkinson, CEO of the International News Media Association. “If your model is 70 percent advertising but your advertising is down 30 to 40 percent, this is an extinction-level event.”
The Facebook Journalism Project tried to stanch the bleeding with up to $1 million in grants for local U.S. and Canadian news organizations covering the coronavirus. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association distributed the funds in $5,000 parcels as grants.
“We’ve got a huge crisis in front of us, right now,” Williams said. “We have to serve the information needs of communities more effectively and with greater speed and clarity than ever, but we have news organizations that are resource-strapped, that are time-starved. We’re not looking three years out. We’re not looking three months out. What can we do to put money, to put resources into the hands of these news organizations?”
At the same time news organizations were doing whatever they could to stay afloat, the demand for their product was reaching unprecedented levels. Wilkinson had reports from his membership of website traffic spikes of 40 percent to 115 percent. Publications in Europe were reporting increases of up to 100 percent online subscriptions. Domestically it was closer to 15 percent, according to Wilkinson who spoke to Blinder on E&P Reports on March 23.
“We believe the difference is most European publishers are not opening their paywalls to COVID-19 coverage and most North Americans are,” he said. “Let’s see if that theory holds true in the next seven to 10 days. Once we right-size our workplaces, once we know what our priorities are, we know what our business models are, we’re going to settle into a new normal. That’s when a number of publishers are going to start adjusting their paywalls up or down.”
Wilkinson said the pandemic was also a chance for publications to change how they are viewed in their communities. He called it a “trust moment.”
“It’s an opportunity to right any wrongs or misperceptions about what we do,” he said. “Not just an opportunity on the content side but in relationship building, on the (business) to (consumer) side. To be that connective tissue. What if on the other side of this, a customer can point the finger at you and say, ‘You were the savior of my business.’”
Several guests on E&P Reports talked about opportunities on the advertising side for local sales teams to strike up relationships, create new opportunities or be a resource for a business struggling during the pandemic.
“People need guidance and they need help,” said Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates. “We’re finding phenomenal response rates from advertisers. They’re looking at you to help them. They’re feeling it. First you have to empathize with them. Then give them ideas. Everybody needs a leader right now so, be a leader.”
Mike Beatty, president of APG Media, described how the newspaper publishing group has given away more than 1,200 print ads—65 percent of those are new customers—to small and medium businesses. The ads are a way for the publications to show their support and hopefully generate some revenue.
In the second phase of the “stimulus package” is an offer to advertise and the publishers will match dollar for dollar any ad spend over $500 up to $1,000.
“We have almost 150 to 160 advertisers that are taking us up on the stimulus offer,” Beatty said. “We let them know we’re here to help and we’re all in this together.” He expects to continue the program into September.
On the content side, America’s Newspapers rolled out a public service campaign called “Newspapers Have Your Back.” It is a series of ads and social media posts that publications and the public can use to promote the important role newspapers play in the community. The ads feature the front-line workers—health care, public safety, grocery—who have been combatting the coronavirus and keeping essential services running.
“Newspapers have had an interesting relationship with their communities,” said America’s Newspapers CEO Dean Ridings. “They serve a public interest role. I think most publishers understand that. They understand the need to provide their communities with information of value and they take that role as seriously as they do making money. You have to make money in a business to survive. But we also have that public-serving role. And I think we are being less afraid to say, ‘We are doing this for you. We need your help.’”
Alternatives and Free Publications
These properties may have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Their distribution channels have been upended with restaurants, bars and live music venues shuttered in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. Those outlets were also a mainstay of advertising for the alternative publications so that well of revenue has run dry. Additionally, the events these publications created as a new stream of revenue have been postponed or cancelled until further notice.
“These are incredibly dedicated people with an interesting business model but the wrong business model for this point in COVID spring,” said news industry analyst Ken Doctor. “Eighty percent or so of their advertising is just gone. A big problem with the alternative weeklies is they are totally exposed to advertising. They are moving to events which is another form of advertising and their weakness as a business has exposed them.”
Across the country alternative publications have furloughed staff, cut salaries and done what they could to control costs while still trying to fill their role of providing in-depth coverage beyond the daily deadlines.
“We’re used to living on the edges,” said John Heaston, president of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and publisher of The Reader, the alternative publication in Omaha, Neb. “You have an industry that has hung together through thick and thin. We punch way above our weight.”
Heaston said alternatives have been launching membership programs with relatively strong results. “There’s a small cohort that’s been measuring their progress of memberships and we’re seeing returns converting registered users to paid at five to 10 times the rate of what the Google Initiative Lab reported last fall,” he said. “These are people stepping up to support local journalism.”
Several free publications—not just alternatives—have been exploring new distribution channels, according to Loren Colburn, executive director of the Association of Free Community Publications. Grocery stores and gas stations have replaced the bars and restaurants. Some members, Colburn said, have been working with advertisers to include their publications in food deliveries.
“It’s community supporting community,” he explained. “The advertisers need to get in front of people.”
All the free publications that are still viable are promoting their online presence, which is a far cry from the last eight years when only about 30 percent to 40 percent were online, he said.
“I see them emphasizing that more than they’ve ever done,” Colburn said. “I don’t think the publication you see going into this is going to be exactly the same as the one that comes out of this. That’s probably to the good. It will make them leaner and meaner.”
In the Future
There will be an end to the pandemic. The big question is what will the industry look like when that happens? Professionals who have been cut to save costs should be working on their professional development, updating their resume, and reviewing their skills for when the job market opens again, according to Laurie Kahn, president and CEO of Media Staffing Network.
Those outlets that did the cutting—and may have more cuts to make—need to handle people as kindly as possible, helping them to get on their feet, offering a stipend for job hunting and being kind in this worrying time.
“The better they treat their employees when they lay people off, the better they’re going to be when they start hiring,” Kahn said.
Doctor predicts a dramatically different landscape as publications reduce their print frequency, maintain their staffing limits and possibly look at whether to maintain their real estate presence in the communities. What will be more important, he said, is creating personal connections to the communities that are being covered.
“It’s about the publisher being out in the community,” he said. “They have to have that community role, not only in the community but out with advertisers. It’s not just a sales call, but a relationship built over time. What we’ve seen is most chains have regional publishers in charge of four or five cities spread over 100 miles, 200 miles or 300 miles. You need to really have the publisher out there representing the paper in the community and with those businesses. Newspapers have slit their own throats in these communities because they’re not involved.”
The greatest potential change will not be frequency or staff size. It will be in how local publications cover the societal changes that are bound to come out of the pandemic.
“Universal childcare, student debt, universal health care, income equity and all of these issues that have been on the fringes may come to the fore,” Doctor said. “The local media companies, they need to adequately cover the news and issues of their times which may be changing. They also need to provide leadership. It doesn’t mean saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do and here are the solutions.’ But take the roles like the publishers. We can confront these issues. I think we’ve got to take a wider lens and look at the changing society. The news forces are no more diverse than they were 10 years ago. It’s basic journalism and how it gets done. It’s quite a challenge and we need people who are willing to take on that challenge.”
Sean M. Wood is a freelance writer and editor and owner of Three 8 Communications. He spent 19 years as a print journalist and was a senior business reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the San Antonio Express-News.