Wyoming newspapers, and the journalists who staff them, continue to suffer financially from the drop in ad revenue resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak.
Even as reporters hustle to cover a public health crisis that is impacting every factor of life in Wyoming, they are seeing reductions in the hours for which they are paid to report.
Over the last two weeks, more independent newspapers in the state made layoffs and at least one paper, the Glenrock Independent, ceased printing as a standalone publication for the time being. Meanwhile, two more large media conglomerates that own newspapers in Wyoming instituted mandatory furloughs and pay cuts for their employees. This follows an initial round of cuts at other Wyoming newspapers in March.
At the same time, editors and publishers say they are experiencing a higher demand for news than ever before. A survey released by the University of Wyoming last week showed deep unease over the economic impacts from COVID-19. Three-quarters of survey respondents were concerned about impacts on their personal finances.
An increasing number of Wyoming residents are out of work, while many are practicing social isolation in their homes or quarantining. With so many people staying put and interest keen over the quickly changing developments, the appetite for news about the virus is enormous.
“Our readership is stronger today than it’s ever been,” Kevin Mowbray, the president and CEO of newspaper giant, and Casper Star-Tribune owner, Lee Enterprises wrote in an email to employees. The same email announced cuts to their pay.
Readership numbers online are “skyrocketing,” Casper Star-Tribune publisher Dale Bohren told WyoFile. “It’s humbling and thrilling to see.”
The newspaper, like many in the state and nationally, has dropped the online paywall for its COVID-19 coverage, allowing readers without subscriptions online access to the stories. “I don’t see any end to that because it’s a duty to provide that information,” Bohren said.
The Casper Star Tribune has not made layoffs, and Lee and Bohren hope to avoid them with the pay cuts, he said.
But elsewhere, there are layoffs “just about everywhere” in Wyoming’s media scene, Douglas Budget publisher Matt Adelman said. After years of shrinking ad revenues, the for-profit news industry was not well positioned to face this storm.
“There’s a lot of turmoil already within the industry, a lot of economic pressures,” Adelman, who is the president of the National Newspaper Association, said. “A lot of smaller media companies were already hurting and this will just finish them off.”
Adelman decided to cease printing the Douglas Budget’s sister publication, the Glenrock Independent, as a standalone paper, he said, and instead will print it as a section in the Budget. He has made layoffs in his production department, he said, but has not had to let go of reporters or advertising salespeople. He hopes to reopen the Independent on the other side of COVID-19’s economic impacts, he said.
News Media Corporation, which owns 11 newspapers around Wyoming, also cut employees’ pay and work hours last week.
News Media Corporation owns more than 150 publications in nine states, according to its website. In Wyoming, the corporation’s publications include the Torrington Telegram, Lusk Herald, Platte County Record Times, Lingle Guide, Guernsey Gazette, the Cheyenne Minuteman, Sublette Examiner, Pinedale Roundup, Bridger Valley Pioneer, Uinta County Herald and Kemmerer Gazette.
The company ordered a minimum 10% reduction in hours and salaries for all full-time employees over the next month, according to a letter addressed to News Media Corporation staff and obtained by WyoFile. The letter, from director of operations John Shank, warned more cuts could be coming.
“I would like to be able to state these measures will only last for a few weeks for everyone and it will be back to business as usual after that,” Shank wrote, “but unfortunately, we don’t know when all of this will pass, and these measures may need to be extended or possibly more extensive steps may even need to be added.”
Lee Enterprises, meanwhile, seeks to subject all its employees to a pay cut or a two-week furlough without pay over the coming three months. The Casper Star-Tribune is Lee’s only Wyoming property. The corporation’s executives are taking a 20% pay cut, which was only partially satisfying to one reporter and labor union member.
“They’ll be taking a pay cut that’s steeper than ours, and you know I’m not going to minimize it, but they make a lot more than me,” said Seth Klamann, the Casper Star-Tribune’s education and health reporter and chairman of the Casper News Guild, a labor union at the newspaper. Many of the journalists in his union earn around $32,000 a year, he said, making any pay cut difficult to manage.
“Everyone in our unit is stressed and we’re all working really hard so adding this to that is hard,” he said. “I don’t doubt that this is going to put a significant strain on everybody.”
Unionized newsrooms, which in Wyoming includes the Casper Star-Tribune and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, will negotiate with management over how the reductions in hours and pay are instituted. Tribune Eagle owners Adams Publishing Group made cuts in March.
In both cases, union members say they seek to implement the furloughs in a manner that will allow workers to secure unemployment insurance.
“The employer incurs the savings and the employees do not incur that loss,” Tony Mulligan, the administrative officer for the Denver Newspaper Guild, said. Both Wyoming unions are units of the guild.
Furloughs may be the best option to stave off layoffs, Klamann said, and that is something his union would have in mind when coming to the bargaining table. Through the negotiating process, the union hopes to get a clear picture of Lee’s financial situation and whether further pay cuts or layoffs are likely to continue beyond the next three months, he said. “I think the answers that we get will kind of guide [the Casper News Guild’s] bargaining and our messaging.”
Bohren’s goal was for the Casper Star-Tribune staff to still have their jobs and benefits at the end of the pandemic, he said: “What we are trying to do is avoid layoffs so that at the end of this pandemic we’re all standing together and continue to provide what we’ve been providing.”
None of the News Media Corporations’ newsrooms in Wyoming are unionized. The Casper Star-Tribune and Wyoming Tribune Eagle have two of the largest newsrooms in the state. Some smaller community newspapers don’t have any staff left to lay off, Adelman, the Douglas publisher, said.
“If they’re already down to three or four people, how do you lay off?” He asked. Layoffs are more likely at the state’s midsized daily papers, he said.
Sitting idle instead of reporting on the crisis will be painful for reporters during the furloughs, Klamann said.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be pulled off this story right now,” Klamann said. “That’s the reason you become a journalist is to cover this sort of thing and work for your community.”
Some reporters said they’re likely to work the same hours as before to cover the crisis, just for less pay.
“The hours are cut but the work hasn’t been,” one reporter at a News Media Corporation Wyoming newspaper told WyoFile. “I get hundreds of emails a day I need to sift through to see what’s important and what’s not.”
Some small newspapers hope they can weather the storm. Last week, more people visited the office of the Saratoga Sun to buy papers than editor and publisher Joshua Wood had seen in some time, he said. His online readership jumped by around 30%.
The Sun has not had to make cuts yet, Wood said, but a small weekly newspaper like the Sun is closely tied to the community’s businesses and economic health. Saratoga is dependent on the tourism economy and could be hurt deeper if COVID-19 impacts summer travel.
In an example of the symbiotic relationship between the paper and the main street its offices sit on, savings the Sun finds in production will let the newspaper offer struggling local businesses better advertising rates as well, Wood said.
Adelman said the smaller newspapers that belong to his association are seeking to take advantage of the small business loans that were included in the federal government’s early set of stimulus measurers. The National Newspaper Association “represents the mom and pop newspaper people, the main-street newspapers,” he said. “It’s the only way they’re going to stay afloat, especially those with debt load.”
In the News Media Corporation letter cutting employees’ hours and pay, Shank also cited federal relief he hoped could help workers.
“We expect the federal government will be providing relief checks of at least $1,200 to most individuals and households in the next few weeks,” he wrote, “so that will hopefully give everyone some cushion during this difficult time.”
The News Guild union’s national leadership last week published a call for further public funding to help newspapers survive the economic crisis.
“Declining advertising revenue, leveraged corporate consolidations, and asset stripping by vulture capitalists have put this industry under financial duress,” the union wrote. COVID-19 is now “further eroding” news companies’ revenues. “Public stimulus funds are quite possibly the only way to ensure long-term viability for these vital news-gathering operations,” the union wrote.
Suggestions included a federal fund for newspapers with strings attached to keep the companies “independent from partisan influence,” and keep the funding from going to stock buybacks or executive bonuses. The government could also purchase ads “to promote public health, participation in the federal census and other topics of national interest,” the union wrote.
“News-gathering operations are essential for a well-functioning society, especially in times of crisis,” the union wrote.
Adelman is hopeful Wyoming’s newspapers will fare better than some in more populated parts of the country, he said. “You have one paper in every town or every area, you may have one radio station or none and we don’t have a whole lot of television,” he said. “Wyoming newspapers play a bigger role in life than they do in other places.”
The Saratoga Sun, for example, has served Saratoga and the Upper North Platte Valley for 133 years, Wood said. “We survived the Spanish flu and other major world events,” he said.