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Opinion: Pandemic taking further toll on newspaper industry

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

In the seven years Robert Connelly has spent in journalism, each of the four newspapers he’s worked for have cut their budgets.

He’s worked himself to the nth degree covering multiple beats at once and writing upwards of 50 stories in a month.

And he’s done it knowing that a pay raise or promotion is unlikely. This is the life of today’s newspaper reporter.

“Normally when you are putting in the work … at some point the pressure lets off,” said Connelly, reporter for Lee Enterprise publications in Davenport, Iowa.

Not in journalism.

Newspapers like Youngstown, Ohio’s daily newspaper the Vindicator, where Connelly once worked, have been shutting their doors for more than a decade as a result of lost revenues. The Vindicator closed in August 2019 after 150 years in business and several years of making zero profit in an economically struggling city. The family owned and operated newspaper's last edition printed Aug. 31, 2019. The paper’s name, website domain and subscriber list were sold to Warren, Ohio’s the Tribune Chronicle, a part of Ogden Newspapers Inc., so residents in Youngstown and surrounding areas could still have a newspaper.

Robert Connelly, former journalist at The Vindicator, which closed in August 2019, is now dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the newspaper industry.

The already struggling industry has been hit with yet another blow: the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease’s rage through the U.S. is further pushing the industry into an uncertain future as advertisers shut their doors and curb spending.

That has led to more furloughs and layoffs right when news coverage is needed and wanted most.

“A lot of people that own dailies — independent people that own dailies — are very concerned about whether The Vindicator is the canary in the coal mine,” said Penelope Abernathy, Knight Chair in journalism and digital media economics professor at the University of North Carolina. “It was really the first metro area of any size that lost its sole surviving daily paper. So … what does it mean with the coronavirus? Does that mean we may be seeing more Vindicators?”

The last Vindicator printed Aug. 31, 2019.

‘The End Game’

In 2018, about a quarter of the papers with an average Sunday circulation of 50,000 or more experienced layoffs, according to a Pew Research Center analysis last August.

That year, 37,900 people worked as reporters, editors, photographers, or film and video editors in the newspaper industry. That’s a 14% drop from 2015 and a 47% decline from 2004, Pew reported.

And in 2019, experts predicted one of the steepest declines in newspaper employment since the recession. In the first five months of the year, 3,000 jobs were lost through layoffs or buyouts, Bloomberg reported in July 2019. Newspapers owned by Gannett and McClatchy, digital media companies like BuzzFeed and Vice Media, and the cable news channel CNN all cut positions.

At the end of last year, 7,800 media jobs had been lost, Business Insider reported.

The job losses kept coming in 2020. The Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off 22 journalists in April “due to the ongoing financial challenges in the newspaper business,” the editor wrote in a letter to the community. A week later, another 10 more were voluntarily laid off.

Abernathy, author of “The Expanding News Desert,” would have predicted before the pandemic hit the U.S. that three mega chains, including the new Gannett after its merger with Gatehouse, would own a quarter of all newspapers in the country and half of all dailies.

“There’s some real problems with that,” she said. “Those are highly leveraged companies. They range in size from 200 papers to about 600, and you have to wonder whether chains of that size are a momentary flash in the pan.”

The pandemic’s effect on newspapers “definitely will” cost the U.S. some of them, she said. “It’s already doing that.”

The coronavirus pushed Gannett, one of the largest newspaper chains in the U.S. with more than 260 dailies, to recently furlough many staff members for an unpaid week each of the next three months. Executives took a 25% pay cut.

The Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times announced it would print just Wednesdays and Sundays. In a memo to staff, Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash said advertising cancellations had cost the Times more than $1 million in two weeks, Poynter reported.

Connelly, a reporter at Lee Enterprises’ the Quad-City Times and the Dispatch-Argus covering cities in Iowa and Illinois, was furloughed to make up for the lost revenue caused by the pandemic. It’s his first time taking unpaid time off in this industry. He’s embracing the break of not having to write multiple stories a day.

And he’s seen worse. He left the Vindicator in 2015, four years before it closed. He saw layoffs at his last paper, the Register-Mail of Galesburg, Illinois and where he is now.

Those staff cuts diminish a newspaper’s value to its readers, Connelly said. “We are cutting off body parts to keep the body intact but we are running out of things to cut.”

Connelly still has an itch for news, like many reporters who stay in the business despite the stress, the constant work and little pay.

“It just kind of gets in your blood,” he said. “I have covered some crazy stuff.”

But in the past couple years he’s wondered what the future holds for the newspaper industry. And that was even before the pandemic hit.

“To quote the Marvel movies: ‘We are in the end game.’ I don’t see how this industry is still the same a year from now,” Connelly said.

News is needed

In her research, Abernathy found that newspapers serving economically struggling communities are most likely to fold.

The U.S. lost a quarter of its newspapers in the last 15 years. The average poverty rate in the country before the pandemic was 13% and the average poverty rate in any county that lost a newspaper was 18% to 20%.

“We have had a collapse of the for-profit business model that supported newspapers for almost two centuries in this country,” Abernathy said. “What papers get hit the hardest? They are the ones that are economically struggling. They have lost, in many ways, the businesses that supported newspapers.”

Despite the closures, people need to be informed.

Cynthia Rickard, a former Vindicator reporter and editor, once lived in censored South Africa. She remembers buying a Time magazine there with stories cut out.

“That brought home to me what this democracy means and the freedom we have in this country,” she said. “I believe, as a journalist, the reason we have that freedom is because of the press because what people don’t know, they’re not going to do anything about until it’s too late.”

Rickard hoped until its last day that “someone would swoop in and save” the Vindicator.

She had taken on many different positions during her 41 years there, including online editor.

When she became online editor, she told her colleagues: Get ready because in five years there will be no print product.

But the longer she was there, the more she thought she was wrong. Newspapers going completely digital doesn’t seem to be the solution. “It just doesn’t get it out in front of people’s faces enough,” she said.

Also, newspaper companies haven’t figured out how to make as much money on digital as they once did with print. And digital subscriptions don’t bring in revenue like print subscriptions.

“I’m not sure what the solution is,” Rickard said, but she’s hoping the millennial generation will come up with one “to get us back to the point where we can rely on our press again to inform us.”

This article is one in a series by Kalea Hall entitled "LosingThe Vindicator." Read more on this topic on medium.com/saying-goodbye-to-the-vindicator.