Last week, the encroaching crisis took a hit on Zeltner’s own workplace — a financial one. Suffering a dramatic dip in advertising revenue amid the sudden economic downturn, the long-struggling newspaper cut 22 journalists from its payroll. Among them, Zeltner.
“It’s very difficult to watch what is going on in the world right now and be a health reporter,” she said, “and not be able to be out and about covering it.”
A tsunami of layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs and closures has washed over newsrooms across the United States over the past month — a time, ironically, when readership and viewership is surging with consumers in search of reliable information about the virus.
The Tampa Bay Times laid off 11 journalists and stopped five days of its print edition. Seattle’s Pulitzer-winning weekly the Stranger laid off 18 staffers and stopped printing altogether. There have been layoffs at the Denver Post and Boston Herald and salary cuts at the Dallas Morning News. Some smaller papers are folding.
Small businesses of all kinds are hurting everywhere, of course, and this month’s cuts follow more than a decade of shrinkage for the media industry. As readers started to gravitate to online sources, news sites have struggled to claim a piece of a national Web advertising market increasingly dominated by bigger players.
But this frailty had seemed almost manageable — until recent weeks when the coronavirus turned it into an urgent existential threat, striking at local businesses that had been the last pillar of support for many news organizations.
The upshot is a void — stories that aren’t being covered and news that isn’t reaching readers and viewers, because there is no one to report them.
“There’s a huge appetite for what we do right now,” said Paul Tash, chairman and chief executive of the Tampa Bay news outlet, which until last week had never missed a print edition for almost 96 years. “On the other hand, the advertisers that subsidize our business are under enormous strain. . . . For many, many of our local businesses, [the lockdown] is a terrible reversal.”
While newspapers — many held by heavily indebted chain owners — have been hit hard, the broader media landscape has pits in it at every turn. Alternative weeklies and city magazines, dependent on ads from restaurants, museums and local attractions, were the first to hang out urgent appeals for reader donations; several have closed, and others are contemplating it. Even local TV stations, the most resilient sector during the media’s troubled years, are hurting from the disappearance of two reliable advertisers — local car dealers and political candidates.
The news media’s plunging fortunes have elicited glee from the likes of President Trump. “Advertising in the Failing New York Times is WAY down. Washington Post is not much better,” he noted in a tweet Monday morning. “I can’t say whether this is because they are Fake News sources of information, to a level that few can understand, or the Virus is just plain beating them up.”
In fact, it’s the virus. And yet the national publications he considers his adversaries — the Wall Street Journal as well as The Post and the Times — are in relatively healthy condition, thanks to a wide base of national advertisers and, critically, millions of digital subscribers. Smaller news organizations, though, are limited to a local readership base and reliant on local advertisers, many of which have stopped buying ads as they grapple with the economic fallout of a nation stuck at home.
The mounting misfortune has driven some to embrace a formerly unthinkable idea: a government bailout.
Media-business analyst Rick Edmonds of the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization, said some news companies may have to resort to applying for loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal government’s newly created plan for small businesses.
News organizations have long resisted — and have rarely needed — government loans, fearing that any such financial entanglements pose a conflict of interest in reporting about the government. But Edmonds said they may be the only way ailing companies can “keep the lights on” through the crisis months. “Who [besides the federal government] has the means to take this country through the shutdown and see it through to the other side?” he asked.
On Wednesday, 19 senators signed onto a statement urging that local journalism be included in any future economic stimulus plans designed to tackle the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis.
Among the first to feel the bite of the coronavirus in his newsroom was Christopher Boan, a reporter at the East Valley Tribune, a small paper in the Phoenix area that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its reporting on Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s policing practices. Boan was laid off March 20, the second time in three years that he has faced unemployment.
“People don’t understand how thin the margins are that we have to deal with at any of our newspapers, and how little it takes to upend everything,” he said. “Don’t take your local newspaper for granted, no matter what size it is or how many Pulitzers it has. . . . It breaks my heart that the stories we were working on aren’t going to get finished.”
For Wes Wolfe, it’s his story of the complex legal battle over a major cargo shipwreck that rocked the coastal Georgia community he covered. “From what I was told when I was let go,” said Wolfe, who reported on the environment and courts for the Brunswick News, “we’re not able to sell ads.”
Some organizations, including the sprawling Gannett chain, have turned to furloughs in an effort to avoid layoffs. One reporter at a Gannett newspaper, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid getting in trouble with her bosses, said she fears coverage of marginalized communities will suffer as reporters go temporarily absent from their beats.
“If you have sources who are difficult to get a hold of or not intimately familiar with how the reporting process works and you go dark for a week, you could lose them,” she said. “They could get offended or think you don’t care about their time or story.”
Another strategy is pay cuts — which at the Dallas Morning News are designed to be temporary, though some on the outlet’s staff were privately skeptical. When the paper adopted similar pay cuts during the 2008 financial crisis, wages never recovered, they said.
With limited options and pressing needs, newsrooms have had to improvise. Several publications, such as the Denver Post and The Washington Post, have turned their sportswriters and columnists into general assignment reporters to help cover the pandemic. Supply and demand makes such conversions necessary: There isn’t much sports news right now; there are many coronavirus stories to cover.
The onset of the virus caught some media companies at the worst possible time. McClatchy — the heavily indebted owner of 30 daily papers, including the Miami Herald and Kansas City Star — filed for bankruptcy reorganization just as the pandemic was dawning. GateHouse, which merged with Gannett last year to form the nation’s largest newspaper chain, promised well before the shutdown to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in overhead each year to service the merger’s debt load.
Small lifelines to news providers have been offered by Facebook and Google. The social-network giant pledged $100 million in grants late last month to ailing news organizations, most of it in the form of ad purchases. Google’s $300 million pledge to news outlets came long before the coronavirus outbreak but is ongoing.
The irony is that these are the very platforms that are often cited as helping to push news companies to the brink before the coronavirus crisis. Google, Facebook and Amazon alone scooped up as much as 70 percent of digital advertising dollars last year, leaving only scraps for smaller players. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
What’s more, Google operates one of the largest automated digital ad-delivery networks, which serves ads to news sites and other websites based on algorithms. Advertisers using these networks often “blacklist” news providers in a crisis, specifying that they do not want their ads to appear next to bleak articles about illness or natural disasters.
For some beleaguered journalists who have seen years of trims and cutbacks, the coronavirus crisis was the final push they needed to get out. In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer had already shrunk dramatically over the past couple of decades. Home delivery of the paper was reduced to just three days a week in 2013. And with the paper’s management engaged in a battle with the newsroom union over staff assignments, Zeltner decided to ask to be one of the 22 cuts she knew would have to be made. “There wasn’t going to be an opportunity to do what I had been doing,” she said.
Those who remain in depleted newsrooms are left with anxiety about what happens next.
“I wish I knew” what the future holds, said Tash, of the Tampa Bay Times. “What will retailing look like? What will small businesses look like? What will local governments look like? We haven’t begun to imagine how this will all shake out.”