Covering how Wyoming and its citizens cope with the COVID-19 pandemic is precisely the type of service every newspaper reporter and editor I’ve ever known feels called to.
I’m no longer in a newsroom on the front lines, though, and I don’t envy how today’s journalists must do their jobs while the newspapers they work for struggle to survive.
Many daily and weekly newspapers throughout Wyoming have cut pay and hours or laid off employees in response to shrinking advertising revenues due to the pandemic. The problem will only get worse in the coming months. Ironically, the contraction is happening just as readership is skyrocketing — a trend fueled by readers’ desperate need to know what’s happening in their communities and the state.
If there’s ever been a time when reporters need to be working overtime just to keep pace, this is it. Instead, many are being asked to cover the biggest story of their lives in no more than 30 hours a week — or, more realistically, doing whatever it takes to do the job while receiving no more than 30 hours worth of pay.
I am terribly concerned about the personal and professional impact on journalists, and on smaller, rural, family-owned publications. If they fall victim to this economic storm, their departure would leave a huge hole in their communities’ access to vital local news.
But changes to the industry are long overdue, and they may come rapidly in the wake of the pandemic. The business model of for-profit journalism is failing, and this fundamental weakness has the potential to usher in a new era of internet-based, nonprofit news organizations.
This should open up new opportunities for journalists to continue doing great work. The delivery of news no longer needs to be driven by advertising in a boom-or-bust business climate, or youthful labor to bring the product to people’s homes.
When I started my journalism career in the mid-1970s, I thought the high demand for local news meant that newspapers would never disappear. Doesn’t everyone want to know what their city council is doing, who’s accused of breaking the law, what’s playing in movie theaters, how local sports teams are faring and who has died?
Like many of my generation, I grew up with a love of reading newspapers and consumed their pages from front to back. I correctly surmised that I’d never get rich working for a paper, but job security seemed certain. I watched my mentors transition to retirement after spending decades in the business, and I never dreamed I’d be part of a dying breed.
I worked for nearly two decades each for Wyoming’s two largest newspapers, the Casper Star-Tribune and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. On numerous occasions based on economic challenges, newsroom budgets were stretched thin in both operations.
During the Great Recession of 2008, the Star-Tribune laid off reporters in the home office in Casper and other cities. Salaries were frozen for several years, and those of us left had to assume the workloads of former colleagues. The company stopped contributing to employees’ 401(k) plans. Morale plummeted.
I imagine that situation pales in comparison to today’s ominous threats to newspapers.
I didn’t survive a newsroom purge in 2013 when the Star-Tribune again cut staff. While the paper was still profitable, it was not immune to the economic pressure to produce more revenue for its owner, Lee Enterprises. Lee needed the money to pay executive salaries at its home base in Iowa, to help subsidize its failing publications in other cities and, of course, to deliver returns for its investors. That’s one of the fundamental flaws of the legacy for-profit news model in general and the corporate media conglomerate approach in particular — the organization’s priorities are easily divorced from the public-service mission of good local journalism.
Involuntarily leaving corporate journalism was personally devastating for me, especially financially. There were fewer opportunities to land a job in print journalism: Nearly 1,800 local newspapers have folded since 2004 and fewer than half of the country’s newspaper jobs from 15 years ago still exist today.
In hindsight, though, I’m better off professionally and enjoying a much less stressful life than I was seven years ago. I was fortunate to be tapped to pen this weekly opinion column as well as to work as a writer and researcher for Better Wyoming.
Please don’t get me wrong — I want Wyoming newspapers to survive, and I hope their revenue sources return. But I’m also a realist, and I know many will find the challenges more difficult to overcome even after the COVID-19 outbreak subsides and we return to some semblance of “normal.”
There must be a new place for local journalists to land.
That is why I was intrigued by a New York Times column by Ben Smith, “Bail Out Journalists. Let Newspaper Chains Die.” He opines that while local newspapers are stuck in a deep crisis in part due to the disease, “It’s also a moment of great promise for a new generation of largely nonprofit local publications.”
Smith cites the example of the American Journalism Project, which, according to its website, wants to help build “a new public service media that is governed by, sustained by and looks like the public it serves.” WyoFile is among AJPs first ever cohort of grantee partners. The three-year, $615,000 grant is dedicated to identifying and proving out a sustainable revenue model for community-supported public-service news in Wyoming — and gleaning what lessons can be learned here for use elsewhere.
“We need to keep the values, keep the people, keep the lessons learned – and get rid of the shareholders and get a better business model,” Elizabeth Green, AJP’s co-founder, told the columnist.
Nonprofits have their own set of challenges, but the basic proposition is much simpler and the alignment between mission and means of support much more direct. If you feel it’s important to feed the hungry in your community, you donate to the local food bank. So too, the nonprofit news model asks for direct, tax-deductible donations from those who believe independent non-partisan reporting is critical public service. In that way, continued, reliable free access to the facts we need to make informed decisions — in some cases life-and-death decisions — is no longer dependent on shareholders’ economic outlook, the whims of an out-of-state executive team or even the health of local businesses.
The nonprofit civic news organization approach also jettisons a lot of the expensive overhead that comes with a sprawling corporate for-profit. In short, the nonprofit model puts the fate of the news media directly in the hands of those it serves and ensures that service will be there when it’s needed most.
The central premise of Smith’s Times column is that as this new model takes root, federal government officials should reject efforts to use taxpayer funds to bail out existing newspaper corporations.
While columnists for the Washington Post and The Atlantic magazine have called for a broad “coronavirus stimulus plan” and huge government spending on public health ads, Smith contends such proposals would use federal money to pay dividends to shareholders unwise enough to invest in doomed businesses.
He’s right — it’s not the government’s role to prop up a dying industry. COVID-19 may leave many newspaper chains unable to rebound, but it will only have been the final straw, not the underlying reason for their demise. Huge printing costs, the inability to fully monetize web-based advertising and a dwindling readership base that’s literally dying off are largely to blame.
A new generation of journalists committed to informing the public about our national, state and local institutions, events and people is emerging, and the Fourth Estate will be stronger than ever. There are untold millions of stories to be told, and changing the platform that delivers them to readers should only enhance their value.
However, as a former ink-stained wretch, I would caution those beginning their news careers to be willing to adapt. Nothing lasts forever, whether it’s reading a print copy of the news or viewing it online.
I probably won’t be around to witness the next wave of innovative journalism, but I have no doubt that those who practice the craft will keep producing thought-provoking copy, however it is funded or relayed to society.