Print newspapers have been hollowed out over the past two decades, chiefly by the rise of the Internet. Now, the economic fallout from COVID-19 is increasing the pressure on local news.
“Very quickly, we realized that we had lost about 75 percent of our advertising revenue,” said George Brennan, editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Times.
He said shortly after stores and restaurants closed in late March, the family-owned newspaper saw it would have to act fast to survive. It decided to go online-only.
Eliminating the physical newspaper saved big money: They didn’t have to print the paper off-island and then ship it over by ferry. But that meant layoffs — of the people who design the pages and do other production work.
“So that's a big blow to a small newspaper,” he said. “We're in the same boat as a lot of these businesses. We’re another small business on the island.”
Word of the decision prompted an outpouring of support — both comments and financial contributions — enough that the Vineyard paper started printing again just six weeks later. It’s still using fewer freelancers, but has rehired all of the regular staff.
“Believe me, we love our everyday readers very much,” he said. “But when Carly Simon writes to you and says we need to support the M.V. Times, I mean, that's great, you know? And it just made everybody feel so good. And she wasn't alone.”
Yet a comeback like that is the exception.
Since the pandemic hit, more than 30 local newsrooms around the country have closed, according to the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit that does journalism training and analysis.
Charles Sennott, of the GroundTruth Project, which supports emerging journalists, said the pandemic has made a tough revenue landscape even more bleak.
“It's really poignant that it hits them hard at a time when they are needed most,” he said. “This is a global pandemic, but all of us are searching for trusted local news, and, you know, we’re realizing just how important it is.”
He said the situation is even worse in parts of the country where communities don’t have those financial resources, “in places like Appalachia, in the Rust Belt, in the Midwest, in the Deep South and Mississippi in particular, and in Texas along the border.”
Closer to home, the national chain Gannett has laid off employees at a number of local papers, including The Cape Cod Times, The Standard-Times, and The Herald News.
The Cape Cod Times eliminated three high-profile newsroom positions — people who had worked there for decades.
A Gannett spokesperson said the layoffs were planned in advance of the virus as part of a business merger. The company did cite the pandemic, however, for furloughs that have reduced many staff to 3/4 time at least through June.
At one locally owned paper, The Cape Cod Chronicle, editor Tim Wood said he’s been pleasantly surprised to see the sale of real estate ads holding up.
“Luckily for us, you know, Chatham, Harwich area, we've got a really strong real estate market,” he said. “And that's really helped.”
He said the Chronicle has not done any furloughs or layoffs.
At The Enterprise, which prints four newspapers covering Bourne, Falmouth, Mashpee, and Sandwich, publisher Bill Hough said at one point, ad revenue was down 50 percent. He furloughed 10 people. By the end of May, he had brought back all but two.
“And I suspect there are some local merchants who are probably spending a little more than they might have because they know our situation,” he said. “And if that's the case, then I'm very, very grateful to them.”
Before the pandemic, he said, the Enterprise papers were healthy.
“I think these chains expect large profit margins, and we're not answering to anyone but ourselves,” he said.
But with revenue still off, Hough said he’s starting a mental accounting of how to cope with the winter, when his and many other Cape Cod businesses lose money.
Until then, he’s taking it week by week.