Community Journalism | A Troubled Industry

A fifth-generation newspaper family has found success even during the pandemic-induced downturn that has rocked an already troubled industry.

“Going into COVID, we were not struggling,” says Liz White, publisher of the Record-Journal in Meriden, Connecticut. “All newspapers are challenged, but if you have an innovative culture and mindset, you can see a lot of opportunity for growth. I think what it has done, in general, is spark us to act even faster.”

RJ Media Group publishes the Record-Journal daily newspaper, six weekly community newspapers and has a digital marketing agency. By using the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), plus grants from Facebook and Google, White has been able to retain her staff without layoffs.

“We have very little debt and can make decisions very quickly — on the fly — based on what is in front of us and what’s happening immediately,” White says. “We’re not bogged down by a corporate structure. We can be more nimble and proactive.”

The Record-Journal had already embraced content distribution on every platform, and it helps businesses advertise on those platforms.

“We have a bigger audience than we’ve ever had when you combine print, digital, social and email — all those things combined give us a broader reach,” she says. “We’re a multi-media company, not just a newspaper.”

Still, the biggest challenge is converting people into paying subscribers.

“During COVID, it has forced us to make a stronger ask, and guess what? We are starting to see subscribers at a stronger pace than ever before,” White says.

THE INDUSTRY’S TROUBLES

“Our media house was on fire; COVID threw gunpowder on the flames. Much will end up in ashes,” Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor and industry commentator, wrote in an email. “Every large newspaper chain in the U.S. is now controlled by hedge funds or exhausted families; neither will invest in the innovation needed. Small-town papers are also tapped out.”

Kristen Hare, who reports on the state of the newspaper industry for the Tampa-based Poynter Institute, agrees.

“What has been happening in the last decade is now happening at a much faster rate. For local newspapers, in particular, they are shrinking or completely evaporating,” Hare says. “It continues a pattern that has been going on for more than a decade. If you look at research on news deserts, we’ve lost 2,000 papers since 2014, with 1,700 of them weeklies.”

Newspaper advertising revenue — the heart of the industry’s cash flow — has dropped nearly 70% since 2004, thanks to digital giants Facebook and Google, according to Jarvis.

“When COVID hit, the newsrooms that diversified their revenue did better than the ones that didn’t,” Hare notes.

She and Jarvis say there are promising efforts to find new revenue models in the U.S. and around the world.

Ontario, Canada-based Village Media is a digital network focused on local news, obituaries, classifieds, entertainment and sports, Jarvis wrote. It relies on advertising but also cultivates sponsors to fund some aspects of its journalism coverage.

“At the Newmark Journalism School’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, which I direct, we have a community of practice around commerce — newspapers opening online stores — and one company started doing that and rather quickly ended up with a multi-million-dollar revenue stream,” Jarvis wrote.

“There will be no messiah swooping down to save and restore what was,” Jarvis wrote. “We will need to rebuild local news from the ground up. It will take time, and there will be many news deserts in local communities, but the demand will be there.”

Hare says that even with high unemployment and closures, there continues to be innovation, stories of growth and bright spots in the industry.

In 2018, for example, the online Berkleyside (Berkley, California) newspaper raised $1 million in capital from 355 of its readers, making it the first news site in the country to make a successful direct public offering.

“Newsrooms never asked the community for money,” Hare notes. “Mostly because there is a sense it shows weakness — saying we need help. We are supposed to be the guardians of the community, so it is hard to admit we need help.”

SMALL NEWSPAPERS IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

Over the past five years, three hurricanes hit rural Columbus County, North Carolina. Those storms caused severe flooding that devastated local businesses.

Then the pandemic came.

“For some of those (businesses) that somehow survived those events, the pandemic may put a nail in the coffin,” notes Les High, publisher of The News Reporter, the twice-weekly newspaper, founded in 1896.

High says the tradition of providing a quality newspaper for his community, even during hard times, runs deep. His family has owned the paper since 1938.

He has been able to maintain the same size staff — 35 employees with six on the news staff — thanks to innovating partnerships and adding an online newsroom.

“We’ve done a lot of work with (University of North Carolina),” High says. “We’ve learned a lot about change. We’ve moved a lot more to a digital model. If it goes online, you pay for that. We’ve also made key hires with a director of marketing and a super young editor. They are both digitally savvy and understand what it takes to make this model work.”

Since the pandemic, High has reached out for grants from places such as Google and other sources, as well as asking readers to subscribe. The paper also received a $7,000 donation so every high school student had a digital subscription.

Reaching out for support wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.

“It was a little bit of a tough decision because we’ve been strong for a long time,” he says. “But now, you either have to be transparent, or there is the potential for not making it.”

High can’t say if he is optimistic about the future.

“That’s a hard question,” he says. “Print still pays the bills in the small county like ours. We don’t have the scale for circulation revenue to make up those losses. I’m not sure where this is going to land.”

On the other side of the country, another small paper with a long legacy (founded in 1909) found new life when new owners took over a few years ago.

Veteran journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Les Zaitz and his family acquired the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon, in 2015.

Zaitz, who serves as the paper’s editor and publisher, invested in advertising, technology and high-quality reporting. In 2018, it was first weekly to win a national Investigative Reporters and Editors Freedom of Information award.

“Malheur is a remote, rural county. There is no TV, no radio — that all comes from Boise, 60 or 70 miles away,” he says. “There’s not much direct competition. The entire thing relies on locally owned businesses. Our job is to help those businesses. They don’t have time to learn how to do Facebook or internet marketing very well.”

Then COVID-19 hit.

“Traditional advertising vaporized for about a month. We had one (temporary) layoff,” Zaitz says. “There aren’t a lot of jobs out here, so I felt a keen responsibility to hold on to them. Frankly, I was holding my breath about holding on. There is a real possibility that we would have to close down.”

What helped was a focus on increasing digital subscriptions.

“The second thing that helped was being very clear in our communication,” he says. “Like everyone else, our business model essentially collapsed. We began asking for financial support. There was an immediate response to those direct pleas.”

Once the paper stabilized, the focus became helping the business community. For example, the paper was able to offer advertising deals and promotions to businesses that were still open for takeout and delivery.

Zaitz considers his role and that of the newspaper as a community partner.

“The community needs essential information about the pandemic, and the newspapers can provide it for free with the community’s support,” he says. “It’s not just ‘here’s our tin cup.’ That just won’t work, nor should it.” T