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Opinion ‘Advertising has disappeared’: Storied newspaper reels in coronavirus economy

(Washington Post illustration/iStock image) (The Washington Post)

Buena Vista County, Iowa, has yet to log a positive coronavirus case. The media economy associated with the pandemic, however, has arrived. “Advertising has disappeared, so we will lose money in March and it was tough enough before this,” says 62-year-old Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly community newspaper covering Buena Vista and parts of neighboring counties in the northwestern corner of Iowa. There’s a lot to cover in that land, too, as the board of the Pulitzer Prizes found in 2017: It awarded Cullen the top prize in editorial writing for a series of pieces on farmland pollution.

Pulitzers reward fine work; they don’t change business models. Even before the coronavirus hit the Storm Lake Times, the newspaper was fighting the same impoverishing forces that have gutted local news outlets across the country. Ads on Facebook and Google, noted Cullen in an interview last year, had gobbled up a good bit of his revenue. “Small-town businesses discovered Facebook or Google and there goes that 20-buck ad you were living on,” he said. “And we live on $20 ads. That’s how we make a living — the scraps that fall off the table.”

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

An even more basic trend hammering the newspaper is demographics. Buena Vista and other rural Iowa counties have seen population declines in recent years. Fewer people mean fewer subscribers, fewer advertisers and less revenue.

The Storm Lake Times has a circulation of 2,800, which includes subscribers paying $70 per year and newsstand sales of a dollar per issue. About half of the newspaper’s revenue, however, comes from advertisers in the circulation area of the Storm Lake Times. Coronavirus, says Cullen, has already taken away 50 percent of that income stream. In mid-March, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an order that closed or limited many of the businesses that keep newspapers afloat: restaurants, bars, etc. It also prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people.

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“You can shoot a cannon down Lake Avenue, our main street, and not hit anybody,” says Cullen, noting that the shuttered businesses have depressed newsstand sales as well. Though the paper is available at grocery stores, “people are so loaded up with toilet paper, they can’t get a newspaper.”

The restrictions have a particular impact on a rural newspaper. Auctions of all sorts — for land, farm equipment, etc. — “just aren’t happening,” says Cullen. “That’s a big deal in farm country.”

The Storm Lake Times is a family newspaper. John Cullen founded it in June 1990, and his brother Art joined the enterprise just months later. Art’s wife, Dolores Cullen, does features and his son, Tom Cullen, reports news. The newspaper started out publishing daily but switched to a twice-weekly schedule in 1994. The Cullen brothers once operated their own printing press, which turned into a clanky, rattling headache. “The press needed constant maintenance — new rollers and bearings and bushings and whatever the hell,” Publisher John Cullen, 70, told the Erik Wemple Blog last year. “Someone once compared having a printing press to letting loose a hungry tiger in your apartment.”

On Monday, newspaper management — Art and John, that is — discussed whether to close things down in light of the coronavirus. They decided to keep going. There’s now a GoFundMe page and plans to investigate the eligibility of the Storm Lake Times for the small-business loans/grants tucked into the recently passed coronavirus stimulus bill. The paper’s banker, says Art Cullen, believes that it’s “ready-made” for the program.

“We’re too stupid to quit, but why are we borrowing money to feed a dead horse?” asks Cullen.

How much do the brothers need from the stimulus funds? “Well, looks like, asking for like $50,000 but I don’t know what they allow,” says Cullen. Last year, he says, the newspaper turned a profit of $2,000. “Then the next week we get a notice that our [health insurance] rates are going up by $42,000,” he recalls.

Both of the Cullen brothers are over 60 — an at-risk group for the coronavirus — and have been working mostly from home to keep safe. Art Cullen is preparing to leave the paper’s payroll — his salary is under $40,000 — and sustain himself on Social Security, a move that John Cullen made long ago.

Other local news providers are struggling for similar reasons. As the Erik Wemple Blog noted last week, the Advocate — Louisiana’s largest newspaper — announced furloughs and pay cuts to brace for the coronavirus. Mammoth newspaper chain Gannett and the Tampa Bay Times more recently took painful cost-cutting steps. There’s similar misery unfolding at news outlets in Pittsburgh, D.C., Michigan, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, California and beyond.

As the losses mount across the country, analysts are debating the appropriate way to save local news — or, more correctly, continuing that debate. The Post’s Margaret Sullivan recently discussed such plans — including one that advocates “at least $2 billion over the next two years to fund newsroom jobs at commercial outlets committed to local coverage” and another that supports big spending on public-health ads via local media. New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, meanwhile, writes that the country needs to move away from the for-profit local model toward “a national network of nimble new online newsrooms.”

Whatever the proposal, "we need to try our damnedest,” concludes Sullivan.

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Tom Cullen, 27, would like to take over the Storm Lake Times and continue the work of his father and uncle, though he has some concerns. He has been at the paper since 2014, just before his last year at the University of Northern Iowa. “Committing yourself to an industry that no one seems to want to support is not necessarily that prudent,” he says, cautioning that he does appreciate the newspaper’s subscribers and advertisers. “But still — you know, you win a Pulitzer Prize and you lose money? That’s crap. I want to see my parents retire. I want to see my uncle retire.”

Read more from Erik Wemple:

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

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New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

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Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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