Friday, April 03, 2020

Newspapers are in distress from covid-19, and the impact on rural newspapers may be worse; a great one suffers

From left: John, Mary, Tom, Dolores and Art Cullen (SLTimes photo)
Several recent stories chronicle the financial pressures hitting local newspapers as a result of the coronavirus and measures being taken to limit its spread, but few have said much about the problems of rural newspapers, which were already suffering from a move of local advertising to global digital platforms. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post writes about one of the best-known rural papers, The Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa, which won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials in 2017.

"Buena Vista County, Iowa, has yet to log a positive coronavirus case," Wemple reports. "The media economy associated with the pandemic, however, has arrived." Times Editor Art Cullen tells him, “Advertising has disappeared, so we will lose money in March and it was tough enough before this. . . . Small-town businesses discovered Facebook or Google and there goes that 20-buck ad you were living on. And we live on $20 ads. That’s how we make a living — the scraps that fall off the table.”

About half of the 2,800-circulation twice-weekly's revenue comes from advertising, and restrictions on gatherings and business activity "have a particular impact on a rural newspaper," Wemple writes. "Auctions of all sorts — for land, farm equipment, etc. — 'just aren’t happening,' says Cullen." The paper's subscription price is $70 a year, but it also depends on single-copy sales, and shopping is different now, Cullen says: “People are so loaded up with toilet paper, they can’t get a newspaper.”

Cullen told Wemple that he is planning to go on Social Security and give up his salary, following the example of his older brother Tom, the paper's publisher. But Art's reporter son Tom, 27, would like to take over the paper and has concerns: “Committing yourself to an industry that no one seems to want to support is not necessarily that prudent,” he told Wemple, while appreciating the paper’s readers 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.”

The Kentucky Press Association reports on its survey of members about how they are coping.

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