How Will the COVID-19 Crisis Affect Local News Businesses?

Past Pulitzer Prize Board Chair Gregory L. Moore examines what the pandemic means for newsrooms across the U.S.

By Gregory L. Moore

The first confirmed U.S. case of the coronavirus was just north of Seattle on January 19, 2020. Patient Zero was a 35-year-old Washingtonian, who four days earlier had returned from visiting family in Wuhan, China. The Seattle Times jumped all over the story.

Michele Matassa Flores, editor of The Seattle Times, had read reports out of China about the virus but had no idea how big the story would become for her newsroom. Around February 27, now deep into the story, editors held an all-hands meeting to discuss reassigning journalists for the long haul, extending out to the fall flu season when things were expected to get worse. They also talked about working remotely if things blew up.

“We took an inventory of everybody on staff and what their home office set up was, what equipment they needed, what training they needed,” said Flores. “We started a process over that week of everybody practicing one day of working from home.”

That jumpstart would set the pace for a story that has consumed and rejuvenated local journalism across the country. At a time when local news is in intensive care, there’s a glimmer of hope that the pandemic may breathe new life into the fight for local journalism – if it doesn’t deal it a death blow first.

While the battered news industry as a whole has capitalized on consumers’ appetite for quality reporting, it’s mostly national news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post that have gotten a second wind from impressively growing their digital subscribers to replace dwindling print circulation.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is quintessentially a local story with more than 80,000 people dead across the country, healthcare systems overwhelmed, unemployment at record levels, parents stressed with childcare demands, and routine social interactions disrupted in every corner of America.

Local news organizations of every ilk are experiencing record readership and digital conversions on par with the big national players. Editors say they have never been more inspired or challenged, never seen their staffs more energized or creative, and can’t recall their readers being more engaged or appreciative.

The irony is that COVID-19 could spell the end for some local news operations. More than 36,000 journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed or had to take pay cuts in the wake of the pandemic. Some newspapers have cut days of publication or closed altogether because of the drop in advertising revenue as commerce has screeched to a near halt. All this at a time when solid, focused, on-the-ground reporting is more needed than ever.

Despite the dirge playing in the background, journalists see an opportunity to again challenge the forces pushing journalism out of American life.

Could this be the moment to redirect the trajectory of local news? Can organizations accelerate the transition to digital, jettison print, and invest those savings and subscriber revenues for a post-COVID-19 world where wicked problems are the new normal?

Journalists are surely hoping that is the case. Listening to editors, you realize how transformative the COVID-19 bomb could be for journalism.

While Patient Zero fully recovered by the end of January, the first U.S. death was announced on February 29 in Seattle (later postmortem testing confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the Bay Area several weeks beforehand).
Concern was deepening for Flores and her staff, not just about covering the story, but about the safety of her journalists and the community as the infectious nature of the virus was becoming clearer. A few days after the March 10 state presidential primary, The Seattle Times went 100% remote, and virtually everyone in the newsroom was assigned a piece of the story.

I spoke with Flores the weekend before the Seattle Times won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting on the Boeing 737 Max jetliner crashes. It was the newspaper’s 11th Pulitzer, including the 2015 award for Breaking News Reporting of the Oso landslide.

“Our work has been factual and even-handed,” Flores said. “Compared to a lot of other ways people get information, whether it’s on social media or through the rumor mill, we’re not inciting panic. We hear from people how much they appreciate that.”  

Flores said The Seattle Times has produced news-you-can-use like restaurants that are open for take-out, ideas about activities for kids, and where to get COVID-19 testing. She also cites the accountability reporting on protecting healthcare workers, problems in nursing homes, and the state’s lack of transparency when it comes to patient diagnoses and deaths as powerful examples of the importance of local news.

“We had one story where we tallied up deaths and gathered data that the state either didn’t have or hadn’t gathered yet,” said Flores. “So, we were actually helping inform the state about what was going on in the nursing homes.”

She praised their feature, Lives Remembered, that profiles local deaths from COVID-19, reminiscent of the New York Times’ celebrated Portraits of Grief after the 9/11 terrorist attack.
But she admits she is scared for the future.

“Right now, people are seeing the importance of local news, but that recognition is happening at a time when we are at greater risk than ever as an organization. We still have 155 people in our newsroom, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to the havoc that the economic fallout might wreak. It’s a hard message to live with.”  

Brian McGrory, the editor of The Boston Globe, is proud of the creative and diverse stories that new digital and print subscribers alike have been exposed to during this crisis.

“This is the biggest story of our generation,” said McGrory. “Our readership has never been higher. Subscription conversions are off the charts. But the cratering of print advertising is overwhelming, and that irony has been challenging to handle. I don’t think we’ve ever been more valuable to the city, and that’s something we have to take into account as we plan for the future.”

He continued: “The COVID-19 story is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s a massive public health story, and a massive healthcare delivery story. It’s a story about economic crisis and educational crisis. It’s a social services story, a government story, and a political story. There’s not an aspect of our life that is not profoundly touched by this.”

“Our reporters have literally been thrown out of the office,” said McGrory. “They’re working from dining room tables, living room couches, basements. Many times, they’re living alone or working beside testy spouses or trying to deal with kids who weren’t in school or daycare. And they’re trying to balance a job that is more demanding than it’s ever been before.”

Asked to about a story he was particularly proud of, he pointed to The Globe’s deconstruction of a Biogen conference that was among the first to highlight the viral potency of the dawning coronavirus crisis. He believes they’ve been as good as or better than their Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

“We have a much stronger digital sensibility and a much more refined awareness of what readers are looking for,” McGrory said. “But we’re not giving up on print by any measure.”

This moment has also demanded a high level of personal leadership and engagement. “We’ve done virtual town meetings for the newsroom,” said McGrory. “I’ve written notes to the staff most Friday afternoons, just updating them on what we did that week, what our readership numbers were like, and calling people out for praise.”

He added: “I have made it a point, along with our managing editors, to stress that we need to take time off during the day. We need to take sanity checks, play with the kids, go walk the dog. And we’ve tried to be as honest as possible about where we are with our financial picture.”

If local news is to survive, publishers and owners should be concerned about discouraging or losing leaders like McGrory, whose dedication to the ideal of the First Amendment is almost mythic nowadays.

Ken Doctor, the newspaper analyst, told the Guardian newspaper that many local newspapers were already weakened before the pandemic, experiencing a 5 to 10 percent loss in ad revenue even when the economy was roaring.

The forces crushing local news are unremitting, and Doctor estimated that local newspapers are currently losing 30-60% of their advertising due to the coronavirus. In the last decade and a half, more than 1,800 local newspapers have closed. Others are expiring by the week.

“Holistically, this is terrible,” said McGrory. “There are organizations that are going to be wiped out by this. There are newspaper chains that are just going to feel the need to cut even further. But we need to step back and get some good out of this, and what we’ve seen is a vivid reminder of the vital importance of local media.”

“I think (this moment) can breathe life into local news if it’s done the right way with an accent on the digital platform more than print,” concluded McGrory. “There’s not a smart analyst out there who doesn’t think that this has accelerated a push toward digital news by anywhere from two to five years. Why are we hanging around printing presses? Why not go all in and make ourselves a digital company that is growing rather than a print company that’s shrinking?”

The issues are no less serious for Gwen Florio, the editor of The Missoulian in Montana. She worked at major metros in Philadelphia and Denver before relocating to a part of America you usually see on a postcard. Montana never had an overwhelming wave of COVID-19 cases, but the influx of tourists made what number they had worrisome. 

“I think for the first few days at least, if not longer, every story in the paper or on our website was COVID-related,” said Florio. “We just felt like we couldn’t keep up.”

Despite being busier than ever, declines in ad revenue have forced some tough choices. She has had to implement two-week furloughs for her staff of 21, down from 40 a decade ago. “That’s problematic for two reasons,” she allowed. “One, everybody still has to pay their rent. The other is we run on a fiscal year that ends September 30th. So, as soon as these furloughs are done at the end of June, everybody’s got to cram their vacations into that little window.”

Florio, although terrified about how she is going to continue putting out the newspaper, remains optimistic. “People are being really nice to us,” she said. “People have sent pizzas, they’ve sent nice notes, they say nice things online. I’ve been overwhelmed. And it’s been fun to see the younger reporters get their teeth into a story like this and just roll with it.”

For Mark Russell, editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, the focus has been on ferreting out the best local stories while taking advantage of regional newspaper resources that come from the Gannett newspaper chain.

“We have been able to rely more on our statewide network with USA Today and folks in Nashville and Knoxville for news coverage,” said Russell. “And because of that, we’ve been able to focus more intently on local Shelby County stories. One example of that is we started a Coping section about a month ago with excellent human interest stories, food stories, and lifestyle stories related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We scaled back our sports coverage and took that Coping section to the front.”

Russell continued: “We’re going way beyond the news of the day to focus on enterprise stories. That’s where you make your name on a story like this. It’s not enough to tell people how many COVID-19 cases the area has on a given day or what happened in the press conference with the mayor. Everyone has that. You’ve got to do stories on the mental health of citizens. You’ve got to do stories on grandmothers and grandfathers and how they have taken care of kids, and in some cases are worried about contracting COVID-19 themselves because they have underlying conditions.”  

“We’ve been very intentional about putting the right people on the right topics,” Russell added. “We haven’t forsaken investigative reporting. I think that watchdog part of what we do is really important.”

But Russell is proud of the human interest stories, especially, because those gems are so easy to miss if you’re not looking carefully. “One really compelling story was a couple that was married for 58 years. They’d died days apart. They were both residents in a nursing home. And we found that from scouring the death notices.”

While carrying out this vital and important work, Russell relies on a staff of 32 people. It’s a far cry from the more than 150 journalists that filled the paper’s ranks in its heyday.

In the state with some of the most liberal open records laws in the country, Julie Anderson, editor of the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale and the Orlando Sentinel, has had to fight for state data that should be public record.

The Sun Sentinel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its coverage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, is known for its investigative zeal. Both of Anderson’s newspapers have aggressively covered the coronavirus outbreak.

She told a story about how the state had stonewalled on reporting positive cases in nursing homes, declaring only 19 nursing homes with cases. After the newspaper threatened court action, the state finally released data showing there were more than 303 nursing homes with cases.

There has also been important reporting on breakdowns in the state’s unemployment office, where frustrated Floridians couldn’t apply for benefits. Among other things, the newspaper reported that the system was set up to make it difficult for people to get unemployment benefits, and as a result, kept reported jobless numbers low.

This accountability reporting is very much appreciated by the readers. Anderson gets calls and letters telling her so. “They’re telling us to keep going,” said Anderson. “So, that’s a good positive sign. People have started to realize that as an industry we are under threat. Maybe they weren’t paying attention before. I feel very optimistic that there is a core of support there, and that we’ve more than proven our value.”

She added: “We’re not going anywhere. We’ll look different. But we’re not going anywhere. I don’t believe that for a second.”

Anderson is not alone in her belief, but the clock is ticking on local news.

Industry thinkers need to get the right people together to figure out the right profit, the right technology, and the right funding models. In doing so, they just might figure out how to hold off the eulogy for local news, and instead get ready for the next wicked problem coming our way.