The company that owns most of the newspapers along the I-80 corridor in southern Wyoming is curtailing workers’ hours, cutting salaries and putting at least one person out of work in response to economic fallout from the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
Separately, the Buffalo Bulletin, a locally owned weekly newspaper in Johnson County, laid off a reporter and another staff member on Wednesday.
Adams Publishing Group, the Tennessee-based company that owns the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Laramie Boomerang, Rawlins’ Times, Rock Springs Rocket-Miner, Wyoming Business Report, and more than 100 other publications nationwide cited economic impacts from the virus in a letter to employees on Tuesday.
In the letter, CEO Mark Adams ordered a compensation cut for salaried employees beginning with April 15th paychecks, eliminated “most part-time positions,” ended overtime and held all employees to a 30-hour work week.
Two reporters — and co-chairs of the Cheyenne News Guild, a newly formed labor union of newspaper staff at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle — said they worried about already overworked reporters’ ability to cover a public crisis.
“It’s almost like what piece of vital information do we cover or not cover,” Isabella Alves, the Tribune-Eagle’s criminal justice reporter, said.
The company had already eliminated reporters’ ability to work overtime as they strove to report on a disease that has upended every aspect of state and national life, the reporters said. Now they will have even less time to report.
Social media and email inboxes are flooded with misinformation about the pandemic, both panic-driven and deliberate, state government reporter Tom Coulter said. “Newspapers are an essential part of media literacy and helping correct some of those narratives that get thrown out there,” he said.
Coulter recently moved from covering the 2020 legislative session into covering the state’s response to the virus. The newspaper lacked a reporter dedicated to healthcare and business at the onset of the crisis after APG decided it would not fill the empty position, Coulter said. “From the start of this we’ve been at a disadvantage,” he said.
The union is contesting the management decision, Coulter and Alves said, arguing labor laws prevent the company from making drastic work changes in the time between the union’s forming and its negotiating of a contract. On Wednesday, the union published a letter saying it was entering discussions with the company.
“While this could still mean temporary changes to our schedule … we are relieved to search for solutions in which every voice is heard,” the letter read.
Regional president Rory Palm said he “will not be commenting” on the decision.
APG’s other Wyoming newspapers do not have unions and have seen editorial staff pared down significantly in recent years. In Rawlins, for example, the Times has an editorial staff of one — editor Ray Erku — to cover the city of more than 9,000 residents and the surrounding county.
“I’ve been using [freelance writers] for more than seven months now,” Erku wrote to WyoFile. “In lieu of boots on the ground, I’ve personally covered various news beats, sporting events and features.”
He is worried, but as yet uncertain, whether he’ll be able to continue paying those writers, he wrote. “I was already working well beyond my salary before this … pandemic hit,” Erku wrote. “But I’m lucky. I’m 30. I’m single. It’s the APG staffers with families I’m more concerned about.”
APG is far from the only media company to suffer body blows from COVID-19. As the pandemic worsens, the response is pummeling newspapers’ dwindling pool of print advertisers — those in the service, hospitality and event industries in particular, according to a recent report in The New York Times. Independent weekly papers and other small outlets around the country are laying off staff, cutting print editions or closing their doors, according to the report.
“Part of you has to accept that this is the broader national trend which sucks and it’s scary,” Coulter said. “Publications all over the country are going through this.”
Small-town family enterprise
Robb Hicks, a co-owner and publisher of the Buffalo Bulletin, also declined to comment. “Things are still pretty raw and emotional,” he said.
The newspaper has a circulation of 4,457, according to the Wyoming Press Association website. Hicks has run the community newspaper for years. He co-owns it with his wife, executive editor Jen Hicks.
In an editorial published today, the husband and wife team called on the community to support each other through the pandemic. “We are in the same boat as every family in this community,” the editorial read, “trying to cushion the economic impacts of social distancing, trying to manage a business, trying to keep our kids occupied and encouraging them to keep up with school work, trying to remain informed but taking care to tune it all out and regain our sanity each day.”
The editorial did not mention the layoffs directly. It concluded with the following:
“We vow to keep bringing you the news with honesty and integrity. You’ll notice a change in these pages this week. In light of the fact that there are no sporting contests happening, there is not a sports section this week.”
Unlike the Bulletin, the Adams Publishing Group is no small independent newspaper. The company owns 37 daily newspapers and 90 nondaily newspapers across 20 states, according to its website. A 2017 report by Poynter Media estimated the worth of the Adams family, that owns the company, at more than $1 billion. The company began buying newspapers in 2014, Poynter reported. The family owns vineyards in France and California and one Adams family member gave $100 million to the Yale School of Music in 2005, according to the article.
APG did not respond to a voicemail left with its corporate headquarters by presstime.
At risk and then out of work
On Tuesday, photo and video journalist Nadav Soroker was continuing his coverage of the state’s capital city, under siege by COVID-19. He had just sent in a video of a hospital foundation director describing how citizens could make homemade protective masks for healthcare workers when he saw the APG letter, Soroker told WyoFile that evening.
For days, he had been out documenting the community response, along with press conferences held by state officials. The work put him in the community and at risk of catching the virus as he worked to document the city’s response to it.
Soroker had occupied a tenuous position with APG for months, he said. The journalist had a contract for 20 hours of work a week with the Tribune Eagle and 20 hours of work with the Laramie Boomerang — adding up to a 40-hour work week for APG but not a full-time position as a staff member, he said. He did not receive benefits through the company and operated as an independent contractor.
APG ended both those contracts, in essence laying Soroker off. Though he intended to pursue unemployment insurance, he was doubtful he’d qualify given his role as a contractor, he said. The union is also contesting APG’s choice to cut Soroker, it wrote in the letter published Wednesday. Whether Soroker qualified for union membership was a bone of contention between Cheyenne News Guild and the company even before recent events.
For now Soroker will go from seeking photos and videos to inform Cheyenne residents to working whatever job he can find while seeking freelance journalism work. It was disappointing any news outlet would choose to decrease resources in the face of the pandemic’s onslaught on the economy, he said.
“If you show people that you’re not going to be there covering things in a crisis when you’re most necessary, why should they support you when you’re not?” he asked.
CORRECTION: This story was updated on Friday, March 27 to note that the Buffalo Bulletin laid off one reporter, not two as originally reported. Bulletin editor and co-owner Jen Sieve-Hicks wrote WyoFile on Friday to clarify that only one of two recent newsroom dismissals was a lay off related to the economic downturn. — Ed.