Community newspapers were already in a tough spot. Coronavirus might destroy them

Ironically, the appetite for local news has become enormous but the pandemic is undermining those best positioned to provide it

Judge Executive Alex Barnett held up the local newspaper in Harrison County, Ky., last month as he discussed efforts to combat the coronavirus. Michael Clevinger/Associated Press

As the top government official in Somerset County, Maine, Dawn DiBlasi is struggling to get a handle on the reach of the coronavirus locally because there isn’t a single hometown newspaper left dedicated to covering this rural area of 50,000 people.

“It would be nice to know right now what the status of things are," said DiBlasi, the county administrator. “And there’s information we’d like people to know about. I don’t know what businesses are open, who’s still working."

At a time when their roles as information conduits and community sounding boards are critical to fighting the pandemic, local newspapers are reeling from the economic shocks of the coronavirus, laying off or furloughing staff and cutting back coverage as their already meager base of advertising shrinks even further.

From the Boston Herald to the Martha’s Vineyard Times, local papers in New England and beyond are cutting costs, in concert with other industries that have been devastated overnight by rolling shutdowns.

“There is no doubt that the fallout will be broad and deep,” said Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a nonprofit that supports local news and owns The Philadelphia Inquirer. “There will simply be fewer local newspapers, regional magazines, and local news websites standing three months from now than three months ago.”

Over the last two decades, at least 2,100 community newspapers across the country have disappeared, researchers say, either closing up shop or merging with other outlets — a reflection of an industry that was slow to adapt to changing media habits and the shifting economics of the advertising industry as the Internet gained prominence. Many papers still standing have drastically reduced newsroom staffs and offer far less coverage than they used to.

On Thursday, at least five workers were laid off at the already much-reduced Boston Herald, including a Boston Bruins beat reporter who said she was told a half-hour before a scheduled interview. And a journalist at the Lowell Sun tweeted Thursday that the paper had laid off at least one staffer. Both papers are owned by the same hedge fund-backed company that is infamous in the news industry for its aggressive cost-cutting.

“The last three years or so have just been death by a thousand cuts. But this is unprecedented,” said Jim Hand, a 35-year veteran of the Attleboro Sun Chronicle who was laid off in March. “I have no idea what the future holds, but I can’t imagine that there are going to be any jobs available. It’s not like other newspapers are doing great."

“It makes you wonder if this is it," he added.

The impact goes beyond just job losses. Various studies have linked the demise of local newspapers to lower civic engagement, fewer people running for office, higher government spending, and more political polarization.

It also gives government officials fewer options to disseminate important messages, such as reinforcing the social distancing practices public health officials say are so important to containing the virus, and steering residents to nearby sources of help. While government websites, Facebook pages, and community groups may fill some of the void, they don’t offer as much space, context, and vetting as newspapers traditionally have.

“If the capacity is not there to let officials explain the decisions that are being made and why they’re making the decisions they are making and what the impact will be, that is a real challenge,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Moreover, a lack of news can also make it more difficult for officials to pick up on local problems uncovered by reporters — including, most pertinently, the spread of a viral disease. Epidemiologists have said the death of community newspapers could make it more difficult to track disease outbreaks.

One dark irony is that the pandemic is driving an enormous increase in public interest for news while undermining many of the local institutions best positioned to provide that information.

The major culprit is the precipitous falloff in advertising revenue, always quick to dry up during any economic pullback. While newspaper advertising has been dropping regularly over time, the coronavirus laid immediate waste to ad sales, especially from bars, restaurants, and cultural institutions that are closed for the foreseeable future.

“The restaurants, the bars, the small mom-and-pop stores are the lifeblood of our newspaper — they’re the people who advertise their dinner specials and shows, and they’re all out of business at the moment, or doing minimal business. None of them can afford to take out ads in our paper," said George Brennan, editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which has laid off some workers and will not print the paper for the next several weeks as it shifts temporarily to an online-only model.

The Times in January had just begun selling digital subscriptions for $40 a year, in line with a widespread but late-to-arrive industry trend to mitigate falling ad revenue with revenue directly from readers. Industry analysts say papers with robust digital subscription bases may fare better than papers that rely on advertisements.

Yet that business model can also make papers a target. The Boston Globe has faced some criticism for not relaxing its paywall at for its coronavirus coverage, as some of the nation’s other major daily newspaper have. (Boston Globe Media Partners management has noted that and the medical news site Stat, two other online outlets under the company’s umbrella, are publishing for free and the Globe has sold discounted subscriptions.)

And the model works only in some places; lower-income communities have seen newspapers disappear more rapidly, while papers in higher-income communities have been more successful in shifting to subscriptions-based models, said Penny Abernathy, who leads research on news industry markets at the University of North Carolina.

Even subscription gains can do only so much, said Michael Moses, publisher of several Western Massachusetts papers owned by the regional chain Newspapers of New England, including the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton. The group’s Massachusetts papers have seen digital subscriptions double in the last year, to about 4,000, but that hasn’t fully mitigated a collapse in advertising revenue; the Gazette recently laid off four journalists, Moses said.

Some news industry advocates have begun calling for a government bailout of the industry. Newspapers may also be eligible for the business loans included in the more-than $2 trillion stimulus and rescue package signed last week by President Trump.

Furloughs await journalists at dozens of local newspapers owned by the giant national chain Gannett Co., including including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Cape Cod Times, and Worcester Telegram & Gazette. A memo to Gannett employees said those earning more than $38,000 a year would be furloughed for five business days for each of the next three months.

In some cases, these newsrooms don’t have much left to cut, having already seen staffs chopped and papers merged. The Gannett-owned Medford Transcript, for example, no longer has a dedicated staffer, said Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor who lives in that city.

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