Save the Picayune?” Bart Everson

April 8, 2020; Brookings Institution and Poynter

Building on prior reporting about the challenges the news industry is facing from COVID-19, the Brookings Institution recently published an article showing that of the 2,485 US counties that reported COVID-19 cases as of April 6th, 50 percent are news deserts, meaning they have one local newspaper or none at all. Brookings also found that 57 percent of counties that have reported cases of COVID-19 lack a daily newspaper, and 37 percent saw their local newspapers disappear between since 2004.

This data adds urgency to the question of how, during the pandemic and into the future, residents of many areas, particularly in rural regions, will get their local news.

Despite the critical importance of news right now, the uncertainty of the country’s economy and the unknowns surrounding advertising revenue compound problems experienced by many news sources nationwide. Building on some earlier work by Nieman Lab, Poynter has created a searchable list of closures and furloughs segmented by media type.

As a journalist who feels the pain herself, Kristin Hare explains, “It’s getting hard to keep track of the bad news about the news right now. But we have to.” According to this list, some of the changes appear to be temporary, such as those at the New Orleans enterprise that owns the Times-Picayune and the Advocate, which announced a temporary furlough of 10 percent of its workforce. Editor Peter Kovacs and publisher Judi Terzotis told Poynter, “The coronavirus crisis is bringing out the best in our company, and the best in our customers,” adding, “We are as committed as ever, and hoping for brighter days ahead.”

This crisis has even hit close to home for Poynter, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, which has also announced layoffs, furloughs, and cutbacks in printing.

The Rural Messenger in Haven, Kansas, provides a snapshot of the constraints many are facing. Publisher Mike Alfers tells Hare that his publication’s revenue is down 50 percent. As Alfers explains, “We are offering free and heavily discounted advertising to businesses strapped for cash but needing advertising to stay open.” Alfers says he asks advertisers to “tell us what, if anything, they can pay.”

It is worth noting that media analysts, including the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, have observed that some of the recent slack within the industry is now “being taken up by newer nonprofit newsrooms.” Still, nonprofit news sources that rely on different funding structures, which NPQ has covered, are not immune to current financial challenges. According to Poynter, VT Digger, a ten-year-old nonprofit digital news site that publishes watchdog reports on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business, and public policy and boasts 350,000 monthly readers, announced its first three layoffs since launch. A breakdown of the cuts “include one part-time newsroom employee, as well as one full-time and one part-time member of the organization’s business staff.”

As a reflection of the crisis and VT Digger’s own commitment to its state, the publication is announcing a unique campaign entitled “3,000 Masks in 30 Days” on its homepage. For every donation that comes in, the publication promises to provide a cloth mask to an area hospital.—Anne Eigeman