Living in the midst of what is shaping up to be one of the biggest news stories of the century, it’s surprising to hear that local journalism is in trouble. Local news outlets comprise an absolutely essential function in reporting important information to the general public during this global pandemic. Many consumers are using our digital products, which can often be created and accessed remotely. As reported on Wall Street Journal, market advertising analyst, Gordon Borrell, estimates that local advertising will drop by 25% this year, as local businesses close their doors and save their dollars. Nieman Lab put together a list of over 30 local, alt-weekly publications that have had to ask for donations, start seeking subscriptions, suspend their publications, or even lay off workers just to make ends meet as their revenues dry up.
In early March, the Director and Founder of the Harvard-based journalism innovation promoter Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton, was quick to note that market turmoil would make it much harder for news companies to find businesses that are interested in advertising. At the beginning of March, The New York Times Company had already warned investors that “uncertainty and anxiety about the virus” had decreased their advertising revenue expectations. But New York Times and other high-end national news companies have large membership bases to help them coast.
Advertising disruption hits local news far more directly. Most local news companies depend on the local business market for ad revenue, much of which has been shut down to increase social distance. And, on top of that, local news is still heavily reliant on paper products. “Despite industry-wide declines in print circulation, many newspapers still rely on dead-tree products for the bulk of their revenue,” Jon Allsop reminds us in his Columbia Journalism Review paper. “What happens when newspaper carriers become virus carriers, and get taken off their routes?” What happens is not good.
“Due to the hellscape of unforeseen economic events brought on by the coronavirus, The Stranger temporarily laid off 18 employees today,” said Editor Christopher Frizzelle of the Seattle based bi-weekly publication on Tuesday. “Additionally, The Stranger is suspending production of our print issue. It is our hope that after weathering this storm, we will be able to bring back the print edition and all the staffers whose work goes into creating it…”
Even more concerning for the news industry is event cancellations. This Tuesday, O’Reilly Media, a tech innovation online networking education company that hosted high-profile events like OSCON, announced that they would be cancelling all in-person events and closing down their events business entirely. While the coronavirus served as the impetus for the decision, O’Reilly president Laura Baldwin showed skepticism for the future of the events business altogether. “With large technology vendors moving their events completely on-line, we believe the stage is set for a new normal moving forward when it comes to in-person events.” Joshua Benton thinks this is a dangerous omen for the other media businesses that rely on in-person events for much of their revenue. “Reading Baldwin’s note and O’Reilly’s decision made me think maybe this really is closer to a stop than a pause,” he writes.
Meanwhile, the digital media platform Digiday recently switched to a membership model for their website. The Editor-in-chief, Brian Morrissey, maintains that the decision was not made in response to coronavirus, but as a way of “adapting to the changed needs of our audience and our own evolution as a company.” Yet, Morrissey admits in Digiday’s announcement for their new membership model that “We have needed to postpone several events, and this hits an independent media company particularly hard.”
Visits to high-end national news sites including The Atlantic, Business Insider, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Wired have nearly doubled as consumers search for the best and newest coronavirus information. Yet, even most news companies are not expecting big gains this year. According to New York Times, Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of Wired, suspects that their magazine will “take a big hit” despite the surge in site visits. Fortunately, there is still room for many of these larger platforms to evolve and keep up with the changes that lie ahead. The local news industry may not be so lucky.