March 27, 2020; Philadelphia Inquirer
As we now know, the coronavirus spreads differently in locales across the country. This article from the nonprofit-owned Philadelphia Inquirer demonstrates something that’s becoming apparent in news organizations both nonprofit and for-profit: readers hungry for local, specific news during this pandemic have driven page views way up. But as in any recession, advertising revenue is going south very quickly. The stimulus package makes some loan provisions available to news organizations, but many are not in a condition to take on additional debt.
News industry analyst Ken Doctor says, “We could be approaching an extinction event for some publishers. It will depend on the condition of those businesses before the virus, and how long this whole thing lasts.” Of course, it also depends on a news site’s dependence on advertising income.
Many outlets are laying people off; the Tampa Bay Times, another nonprofit-owned publication, cut around a dozen journalists. For-profit publications across the country have also suffered; around 40 were furloughed from the Times-Picayune and the Advocate in New Orleans, starting with reporters and editors covering sports and culture. Others are cutting the work week to four days. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has laid off many of its staff, and the Boston Globe has started to trim its mailroom, laying off 50 employees and offering another 55 buyouts.
Jim Friedlich, who directs the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, notes the irony of the moment. “Our news has never been more valuable or more valued by our communities, and yet we face the same economic challenges as the local markets we serve,” Friedlich says.
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David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance and American Press Institute, says the pandemic has caused a shift in reader focus that should be benefitting local news. “There had been a general trend of readers paying more attention to national stories, an internet phenomenon accelerated by Trump,” Chavern says. “Now the magnifying lens has been turned around.”
People have an intense need to know what’s happening in their county, their schools. They want to know where their local testing stations are. Local news is literally saving people’s lives right now.
Even if the “skyrocketing number of pageviews” isn’t leading directly to rising revenue, consumers may be end up contributing more directly in the form of digital subscriptions and public donations.
“As the saying goes, ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’,” says Friedlich. “The good news in all of this is that the COVID-19 crisis appears to be accelerating the transition to a greater level of community financial support for local journalism.”—Ruth McCambridge