COVID-19 pandemic is raising the threat level for news outlets

As papers struggle for income and some have to cut back, reporters and editors are covering an unprecedented story

Newspapers
Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

For journalism outlets in Wisconsin and nationwide, the COVID-19 pandemic could be the biggest story ever. And reporters and editors are covering it even as their future has never looked more precarious.

News organizations have sent employees to work from home, some even before Gov. Tony Evers issued the Safer at Home order on March 25 to stop people from congregating. They hold staff meetings on video chat platforms and conduct interviews that way or by phone.

Pinched by a sharp drop in advertising, some have trimmed their content or downsized publication schedules. And some have also declared temporary employee furloughs or imposed salary cuts to hold down costs.

What the future will look like when the current crisis abates is anybody’s guess.

Through it all, however, news staffs that must do more with fewer people are scrambling to find and tell stories about the pandemic.

“One of the great ironies of all this is, on the one hand it feels like nobody is driving around, we’re all hunkered down, there is no sports — it feels like it would be a very, very slow time,” says John Smalley, editor at the Wisconsin State Journal. But, he says, “our reporters have never been busier.”

Staffing shifts

The State Journal and the Cap Times — a digital daily with a free tabloid weekly — are both included in a furlough of two unpaid weeks off for most employees in the quarter running April through June. Executives are getting a pay cut instead of time off. Being given a furlough allows employees to collect unemployment compensation, Smalley says.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is planning to move later this year from its office building in downtown Milwaukee. (WikiCommons photo)

Gannett, which owns The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and nine other daily papers, including in Green Bay, Wausau, Appleton and other smaller cities, is furloughing staff for one unpaid week a month in the same quarter. Employees making $38,000 a year or less are exempt from the furlough.

“We hope these are temporary measures and that all the actions we’re all taking together will work to contain this pandemic in the next few months,” says Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley. Even so, he contends, “we’ve never covered a story this well, even when our staff was larger.”

More drastic action took place at Isthmus, the Madison alternative weekly, which laid off all staff, stopped publishing its print edition and dramatically scaled back its online offerings starting March 19.

“More and more places were closing and we weren’t going to have places to put out the product,” says Isthmus co-owner Jeff Haupt. But with much of its advertising coming from bars, restaurants, night spots and cultural venues, “the revenue stream was going to be pretty much cut off even if we were just online.”

Since it stopped publishing in print, Isthmus has continued posting some stories online, covering the  April 7 election, including the run-up to it and the April 13 vote count. On April 8, Isthmus Editor Judith Davidoff and reporter Dylan Brogan announced the start of a crowdfunding campaign to support the paper.

In Milwaukee, the alternative weekly Shepherd Express has also stopped printing after putting out  the March 19 edition, but it is continuing to publish regularly online, says Louis Fortis, the paper’s owner and editor-in-chief.

Like Isthmus, the Shepherd lost the lion’s share of its advertising base as restaurants, concert venues and nightspots closed under Safer at Home. “How are you distributing the paper — who’s going to pick it up when you stay at home?” Fortis says.

The publication laid off staff, but Fortis says he has continued to pay for employees’ health insurance and kept some people on the job to provide new content. “We want to continue to give our readers what they’re used to, even though right now it’s only online.”

The Shepherd started a membership program a few months ago that Fortis says has been growing in recent weeks.

Memberships have been growing at the online outlet Urban Milwaukee as advertising has declined, says Editor Bruce Murphy, and readership is up 39%.

With the falloff in arts and entertainment news, the site has started adding news content, most of it COVID-19-centered, every day of the week instead of taking weekends off. “We believe we are doing more coverage of the pandemic than any local publication in metro Milwaukee,” Murphy says.

The Milwaukee Business Journal reports paid subscriptions are up as well. “The interest in the news is at its highest point I’ve seen,” says Editor Mark Kass.

So far, he adds, the Business Journal has not had to furlough editorial employees, and it has  continued to publish an ink-on-paper edition because most readers subscribe and receive it by mail.

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Social distancing

Rules for social distancing have changed news gathering across the board, while economic constraints have affected publication schedules.

At the Journal Sentinel, Stanley consulted with Michele Flores, editor of the Seattle Times in Washington, about what she and her staff had learned in the first U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, and early on adopted safety practices that the Times had established.

“Don’t enter areas of quarantine or self-quarantine, keep a safe distance from sources, use your best judgment at the scene to stay safe, shoot photos through windows and from the street,” Stanley says. “No one in their newsroom had contracted the virus despite their intense and excellent coverage. Her advice helped us greatly.”

At BizTimes Milwaukee, a biweekly business magazine, “We are all working from home right now so we are limited to phone calls, internet research, access to public records online, etc.,” says Editor Andrew Weiland. “We are going out in the community to take some photos, but that is about it.”

Isthmus neon sign (lights off)
Photo by Carolyn Fath Ashby, courtesy of Isthmus

Both the Business Journal and BizTimes Milwaukee have daily online coverage as well as their print periodicals. BizTimes is publishing its magazine in digital form only in April and May, says Weiland, and planning to return to hard copy after that.

“We are eager to return to normal and it is important for our business to do so,” Weiland says. “But other publications may be forced to go online all the time and may have to stick with that.”

For Milwaukee Magazine, one of the biggest challenges was the standard publication lead time when the news was happening so quickly. The April issue had gone to press before the first major wave of coronavirus news, so Carole Nicksin, the editor-in-chief, inserted a letter to readers that addressed the suddenly shifting ground under everyone’s feet.

May issue production was already underway by mid-March. “With everything changing so quickly we could not change our story lineup,” she says — but tweaks were possible. The cover story — a service feature on local doctors that is one of the magazine’s hallmarks, “seemed pretty apropos,” she says. A sidebar explaining viruses was added, along with other stories on how businesses, artists and others were responding to the emerging coronavirus.

Nicksin, who doubles as publisher, says advertising for May mostly stayed strong; it was sold well before and much of it was connected with the doctors feature. The magazine will combine its June and July issues. “Not just to give us time but to give our advertisers time to get their bearings,” she says. And the magazine’s website got a refresh with more stories each day.

At the Journal Sentinel, “we’re giving away all our coronavirus coverage [online] as a public health service,” says Stanley, “but digital subscriptions continue to grow, so people are seeing our value.

“Crises like these show how much we need independent, fact-based reporting in our democracy,” he continues. “To make good individual choices, to keep our families safe, to help local businesses, to encourage our elected representatives to make smart public policy choices and hold them accountable when they don’t.”

Looking back, looking ahead

The COVID-driven challenge to newsrooms comes atop more than two decades of relentless turmoil in journalism, both as a profession and as an industry. As advertising revenues have been chewed up by internet-based alternatives, most recently through social media such as Facebook and aggregators such as Google, news outlets have been letting go of staff to meet the bottom line.

Now, the coronavirus crisis has brought some to the brink of extinction.

For Gannett, the Journal Sentinel, and the rest of the company’s Wisconsin properties, the pressure has been accelerated by the late 2019 merger with GateHouse Media, a $1.4 billion transaction that saddled the company with $1.8 billion in private equity debt financing.

A month after the deal closed, the Journal Sentinel shed about a half-dozen veteran reporters and editors who took buyouts from the company — “a collective 266 years of experience,” the NewsGuild-CWA union local representing Journal Sentinel journalists stated.

“The coronavirus clearly has been devastating to the news business, just like it has devastated many other industries,” says Ashley Luthern, president of the NewsGuild-CWA at the newspaper. “The news industry, particularly Gannett, has made decisions leading up to this that perhaps made our situation more precarious.”

Those decisions go back to Gannett and GateHouse before the merger.

“Gannett has taken $329.2 million in advertising and subscriber revenue and given it out to shareholders in the form of dividends in 2018 and 2019 under its two prior companies,” Luthern says. “Those are funds that could have been put back into our local newsrooms serving our local communities.”

Gannett has two CEOs. One of them, Paul Bascobert, has agreed to forgo his salary during the furlough quarter. The other, Mike Reed, who came from GateHouse, is paid under a separate contract with Fortress Investment Group, the private equity firm that manages the corporation.  “We don’t even know how much he’s paid because he has a separate contract,” Luthern says. “He’s employed by Fortress Investment Group, and they get paid millions of dollars to manage Gannett. So we have all these concerns.”

Nationally the NewsGuild-CWA has endorsed a proposal to include a stimulus bill for journalism in the next federal aid package to relieve the impact of the coronavirus. For five years, news employers taking public funds would have to remain nonpartisan, demonstrate financial need, be blocked from using the money for dividends or stock buybacks and barred from offering executive bonuses, stock options and golden parachutes for departing executives.

“I don’t know that there’s ever been a more important time for journalism at the Journal Sentinel,” Luthern says. “We have shared critical information about how readers can stay safe, how they can help their neighbors. We’ve debunked misinformation. We continue to ask for those who support us and who can afford it to subscribe, because with the model that we currently have that is the best way to show your support.

“We are worried for our journalists and we are worried for our readers. They are relying on our coverage and the coverage of many other media outlets now more than ever. I think all of that goes to show why journalists across the country have been deemed an essential service.”