How the Hearst Media Connecticut Group is Navigating Through the COVID-19 Crisis

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Newspapers have endured tremendous change over the past few decades but perhaps no time stands out quite like what we’re going through right now. Driven primarily by losses in ad revenue, most of us are facing workforce reductions, layoffs, furloughs, pay reductions and closures throughout the industry. All of those decisions remind us how things in our business have changed and how fragile we really are.

If you’re like me, you’re a tad worn down by the gloom and doom brought on by the coronavirus. I’d like to see it all go away immediately, but it’s our new reality and regardless of if you like it or not, we have no choice but to roll with the punches and find ways to evolve in an effort to keep both our lives and our jobs moving forward.

It’s a new world and it isn’t all pretty.

Recently, after reading several articles detailing the challenges in our industry, I came across a summary of current adjustments outlined by the Poynter Institute related to COVID-19 in newspapers, weeklies and alternative weeklies. There have been dozens of publications suspending print indefinitely, many cutting their print cycle, more layoffs than you can count, numerous pay cuts from the top to the bottom of the organizations, furloughs and cost-cutting measures, reduced hours and pay and several painful closures.

One of those Poynter articles was by Rick Edmonds detailing some of the actions taken by Advance Local. Advance Local reacted quickly to the challenges of COVID-19 by implementing graduated tiered wage reductions, furloughs, and suspension of the 401K company match. What stood out to me were portions of a letter from Advance Locals CEO stating that although they anticipated the need for all employees to take two weeks of required furlough, the exception would be made for local market content employees and production employees. The statement goes on to read that “Because of the need to keep our vital production areas operating, local market production employees will have until July 31 to take one week of furlough”.

Personally, I was pleased by the fact that Advance Local recognized the value of their production employees. At the same time as my heart goes out to fellow newspaper workers nationwide, I find a small nugget of appreciation that our operations personnel were being recognized for their outstanding efforts in this tough time. While it’s a fact that we’re all in this together, I’ve spent most of my working life in the operations area and clearly I have an affinity for operations and the contributions made to our industry.

Disinfectants and hand sanitizer have become a staple in many of production facilities. Before COVID-19, PPE consisted mainly of ear and eye protection. (Photo by Jerry Simpkins)

In addition to the changes in our workforce, various meetings and conferences continue to be cancelled and/or rescheduled. One operations conference that many of us are familiar with is the Metro Production Conference. On April 1, the Metro Production Board announced the conference originally scheduled for May 28-May 31 would not be taking place due to the impact of the current pandemic and that they have signed an agreement for the conference to take place in 2021 instead.

On April 16, John Harrison, a member of the NEACE (New England Association of Circulation Executives), released a paper on “Ideas & Best Practices for a COVID-19 World. I encourage you to read it on their website, neace.com. Harrison presents many great ideas to help navigate your way through the current crisis. After exchanging emails with him and reviewing several of his suggestions, I feel his thoughts can help many of us through this tough time.

Here’s a brief recap:

Circulation and production have the tools—Encouraging communication with the public throughout the COVID-19 crisis, realizing that readership is probably the most valuable resource right now and the value that they have for direct contact delivering physical and digital news to some of the most aware, involved and influential community members, along with pointing out the opportunities to try new things and break publishing conventions.

Local fact sheet directory—Create a comprehensive status directory listing current status of stores and services compiled mostly from recent news coverage. Keep the directory current and credible in order to be useful to readers.

Community activities bulletin board/calendar—Another opportunity to publish a community activities directory as a letter-size PDF and send via email along with a business sponsorship. Ask readers to send in organization announcements, event dates and other community news. Announcements via your activity’s directory PDF will extend you reach into the entire community.

500 Free Papers: A deal with home delivered meals—NEACE details how one paper worked with a local bank as a sponsor to print newspapers for restaurants to handout with home delivered meals, complete with a push email and the sponsor (a bank) providing free ad space on the wrap to participating restaurants.

Local store DIY “catalogue” sales—Several ideas on developing a simple “catalogue” and covering your market area with newspaper distribution, push email list and a posting on the web. Possibly pre-prints for inserting. All products may include instructions on how to order by email or phone along with curbside or home delivery detail.

COVID-19 crisis temporary help wanted—Despite job losses we see in many areas, several temporary hyper-local job opportunities exist in our communities that are not generally a focus of web job boards. This presents a great opportunity for local newspaper push email newsletters.

Zoom business roundtables—Detailed guidance on an approach by NEACE president Warren Dews on the importance of business roundtables. His approach and application in the communities where his two papers are located.

From One Production Director

Jim Gorman

Throughout this crisis, the news publishing industry has been deemed an essential business, to which I couldn’t agree more. Our news organizations keep the public informed and have done a tremendous job despite conditions frequently changing not only day to day, but hour by hour. Then, it’s the job of operations to put it all together, get it out the door and into the hands of the public.

I recently reached out to Jim Gorman, production director and plant manager at Hearst Media Connecticut Group to see how they are reacting to the recent COVID-19 challenges.

Do you have any production employees who are/were so concerned with COVID-19 that they have elected to self-quarantine?

Gorman: Luckily enough, I have to say that we have not had any issues with employees in our newspaper production operation electing to stay home to “self-quarantine.” I would like to attribute this to the safety measures that we have put in place at our production plant.

How do the essential workers that must remain to put out the paper seem to feel about the risk?

Gorman: They are concerned, of course, but definitely feel much more at ease due to the fact that we are providing all essential PPE, such as gloves and masks.

What type of precautions are you taking in your production areas?

Gorman: We instituted a cleaning program when COVID-19 broke into the U.S. We have the entire building and all employee work stations cleaned two times daily and in-between shifts. This is done with hospital grade anti-bacterial/virus cleaning products. I feel that the open communication we have with employees is absolutely key to making them all feel safe.

How are you dealing with social distancing when working in tight areas with several people?

Gorman: Our plant is handling social distancing just fine. Our pressroom and mailroom employees have their clean workstations and are not really dealing with tight areas. We have always offered masks and gloves to employees in the past, but it was optional. Due to the virus, it now has become mandatory to use them. I truly feel that our employees are as comfortable as they can be at this time due to the constant communication between management and their staff.

Did you offer any furloughs or other type of options as a reaction to revenue losses?

Gorman: I am extremely proud working for Hearst Media Connecticut Group. Not only have they provided us with these important resources, but they have also reassured all of the newspaper divisions and its employees of their commitment to their printed publications. They had announced that they will not be involved with any layoffs or furloughs. I find this amazing after hearing what other companies are doing across the country currently. Simply put, Hearst is taking care of their employees.

How has your commercial printing faired in this crisis?

Gorman: Advertising and commercial print is definitely down at the moment and taking a hit. Our editorial departments are taking this time to get important information out to the public in our publications and creating must-read sections on the coronavirus. We are anticipating that when our state and its businesses open back up, advertising will pick back up and be strong, as to let the people of Connecticut know we are open to get the economy running again.

Assuming that you have less folks now in production due to COVID-19, what adjustments have you had to make in processes? Moved deadlines? Missed deadlines?

Gorman: Outside of production, transportation and distribution, almost all other Hearst Connecticut employees are working remotely from home except for some of the field reporters and photographers. For this to happen, the I.T. department made sure to give each of the departments and their employees everything they needed to be able to successfully work from home. I am truly amazed how smooth this transition has been. In production, we are running on all normal deadlines and have full staffing in the press and mailroom departments.

Getting Back Up

Like Gorman, I’m proud to be working for an organization (WEHCO Media) who has made every effort to minimize the impact on its employees. Like the rest of the industry, I’ve seen declines in preprints, which is understandable since stores have closed their doors as a result of stay-at-home orders.

I’ve had a few employees who are so concerned with just being outside that have elected to self-quarantine, putting a strain on the remainder of the workforce. We’ve filled production areas with bottles of hand-sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, provided and suggested use of PPE. In addition, we wipe down workstations and even the time clock daily.

In this challenging time, it’s also important that as supervisors and managers we show our employees how very essential (and important) they are to not only our subscribers but the entire organization. I find myself spending more time than ever out on the floor, pitching in on the line, talking with employees (from a social distance), and listening and reacting to their concerns on COVID-19. It’s a great time not only to bond with employees but to quell some of their fears by working right along with them to get the news to the people.

None of us could have predicted an event of this magnitude hitting our economy, the insurmountable effects on our healthcare system, or the effect on our retail businesses, stock markets and the way it would hamper our internal operations. Nor can we predict where it will take us from here. Throughout every department in every newspaper, I’ve seen the resilience and determination necessary to continue to deliver high quality factual news and quickly recover from this assault. I firmly believe that although this challenge has knocked some of us down, I’m confident we’ll soon all be back on our feet. 

Jerry SimpkinsJerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on LinkedIn.com or at simpkins@tds.net.

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