A recent article about the issues facing community journalism features four of the panelists from the Community Journalism track at the Radically Rural virtual summit on Thursday, Sept. 24. Tickets are still available.
Liz White, publisher of the Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn., says her paper was doing well before the pandemic, and thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program and grants from Facebook and Google, has been able to avoid staff layoffs, Susan Geier reports for the Granite State News Collaborative in New Hampshire.
"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," White told Geier. Because the Record-Journal has little debt and no corporate bureaucracy to deal with, they can make decisions quickly, White said. Though they've embraced digital content, she said it's still a challenge converting viewers into paying subscribers.
Kristen Hare, who reports on the state of the newspaper industry for the Poynter Institute, told Geier that local journalism must pivot to new revenue models to survive. Cash-strapped small papers are increasingly snapped up by newspaper chains, which are increasingly controlled by hedge funds that don't have an incentive to innovate and ensure the long-term survival of journalism.
Meanwhile, newspaper advertising revenue has dropped nearly 70 percent since 2004 because of social media. When the pandemic hit, newsrooms that diversified their revenue streams fared better, Hare said. Some promising new revenue models include seeking sponsors to fund different kinds of coverage (for example, a sporting goods store might sponsor high school sports coverage). Newspapers could also directly appeal to the community in a fundraising effort, she said.
Many small local newspapers are also at the mercy of disasters, just like other small businesses. The News Reporter, a twice-weekly paper in Columbus County, N.C., has suffered damage from three hurricanes in the past five years, and on top of that is dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic, according to publisher Les High.
He told Geier that the paper has been able to stave off layoffs by aggressively seeking grants, adding an online newsroom with help from an innovative partnership with the University of North Carolina. "We’ve learned a lot about change," High said. "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."
Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon, said that his paper is very rural and relies disproportionately on ads from local businesses. When the pandemic hit, "traditional advertising vaporized for about a month," Zaitz told Geier. He was worried the paper would have to shutter, but it helped to focus on increasing digital subscriptions and remain clear in communicating with the town. The paper put out a call for financial aid and says readers responded immediately.
After the paper stabilized, Zaitz shifted his attention to helping local businesses with advertising deals, saying that he believes the newspaper is a community partner. "The community needs essential information about the pandemic, and the newspapers can provide it for free with the community’s support," Zaitz told Geier. "It’s not just 'here’s our tin cup.' That just won’t work, nor should it."