Despite readership spikes, pandemic adds to business woes for local news

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has announced furloughs and pay cuts; the Riverfront Times has furloughed most of its staff; and the Webster-Kirkwood Times, South County Times and West End Word have all suspended print production, saying of the future, “we shall see.”

Call Newspapers, which offers four weekly brands across St. Louis, temporarily stopped print production. So did the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl, the city’s 80-year-old crime newspaper, and St. Louis’ Northsider and Southsider weekly newspapers.

It’s not just happening in the St. Louis area: The Columbia Daily Tribune and the Springfield News-Leader, both Gannett publications, have furloughed employees. Nor is the damage limited to newspapers: Tegna, the parent company of KSDK, has issued company-wide pay cuts and furloughs.

All in about one month.

The decline of the community news industry isn’t a new story. It has been happening since at least 2008, when the financial system crashed. Small businesses were failing around the same time many people were realizing they didn’t need to buy newspapers to stay up to date on what was happening in the world — they could use online news sites, many of which did not have paywalls yet, or Facebook.

Craigslist was demolishing the market for newspaper classified ads. And with the increasing popularity of Google and Facebook, the print newspaper’s illustrious run as the prime way to reach lots of people at once came to a quick, painful end.

Media analyst Ken Doctor said the coronavirus has pushed the news industry from 2020 to where analysts previously estimated it would be in 2025.

“Print was going away — it was going away before COVID — it’s just going to mean it’s going to go away more quickly,” Doctor said. “It doesn’t mean the end of it, but it means that the printing and distribution of our seven-day, daily newspapers, which has made less and less sense for a number of years, is, I think, going to be an artifact of the COVID crisis.”

Doctor predicts print newspapers that were unprofitable before COVID-19 may end up closing as a result of the pandemic, while papers still turning a profit may need to make adjustments like cutting print days.

“The one silver lining is that the people have rediscovered the unique value of local news, because CNN and the New York Times can tell you what’s going on nationally with the virus, but they can’t tell you what’s going on in your community,” he said.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Columbia Missourian, the Springfield News-Leader and the Kansas City Business Journal have reported increased readership.

“We have certainly seen a significant increase in readership,” said Amos Bridges, editor-in-chief of the Springfield News-Leader.

Even so, the paper, with a staff of around a dozen reporters and photographers, has had to furlough management for one week per month for the rest of the quarter.

With so many local businesses closing due to the virus, they have stopped buying advertisements, causing steep financial hits to papers that may be seeing their highest readership in years.

The Columbia Missourian has seen 60% more online visitors than the daily newspaper saw in January or February. The Kansas City Business Journal has seen “a healthy increase” in total visits for online coverage compared with last year, Editor Brian Kaberline wrote in an email.

Doctor said the pandemic will hit papers dependent on advertising revenue — like the alt-weekly Riverfront Times — the hardest.

“They were not healthy going into this. They’re now an endangered species,” Doctor said. “Same thing could be true of city magazines for similar reasons. They’re mainly advertising and almost entirely print.”

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