COVID-19 already depleting Iowa journalism ranks

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has drawn massive public attention in recent weeks, with Americans visiting more news sites, clicking more on stories about the virus, and spending more time taking in those articles.

But as new unemployment claims hit record levels and huge numbers of businesses are temporarily shut or attracting far fewer customers, advertising revenue has plummeted. Large national media organizations are taking a hit in revenue, Marc Tracy reported for the New York Times on March 20, and “The outlook is worse for local news websites, daily newspapers in midsize cities and weekly papers across the country, which typically rely on now-struggling neighborhood businesses for the bulk of their advertising.”

That group includes Iowa newspapers. The cutbacks are already affecting coverage at our state’s most influential media outlet.

The Des Moines Register is among some 260 Gannett-owned properties where staff learned on March 30 “that reporters and editors who earn more than $38,000 annually will be scheduled to take an unpaid week off [each month] on a rotating basis.” One of the Register employees affected next week will be Barbara Rodriguez, the paper’s lead health care reporter this year as Tony Leys is on a journalism fellowship. Although many journalists have been involved in producing the Register’s COVID-19 related coverage, it’s still a terrible time to have anyone who specializes in this area off the beat, even temporarily.

The second-largest Gannett-owned newspaper in Iowa is the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reporter Zachary Oren Smith tweeted on March 30 that “there are no announced furloughs for our four reporters, photographer and news director.” That’s welcome news, as Johnson County was the first Iowa hotspot of the pandemic and is home to numerous medical experts as well as major hospitals. However, newsroom cuts over the past decade had already reduced the Press-Citizen to a bare-bones staff.

The Register’s reporting contingent may not bounce back from the COVID-19 crisis. After Gannett merged with GateHouse media last year, the company announced a goal “to cut $275 million to $300 million in costs per year within 18 to 24 months.” Media analyst Ken Doctor speculated in November that the cuts might exceed $400 million, which would require “even more reduction in headcount.”

In any room of eight people at a current GateHouse or Gannett operation, one is likely to see her job gone in 2020. One in eight would add up to 3,450 of the combined companies’ 27,600 jobs. Some observers expect that the final total to be higher than that.

That was before COVID-19 tanked the economy.

The March 30 all-staff memo from Gannett’s operating CEO Paul Bascobert warned,

Our plan is to minimize long-term damage to the business by implementing a combination of furloughs and pay reductions. By choosing a collective sacrifice, we can keep our staff intact, reduce our cost structure, deliver for our readers and clients and be ready to emerge strong and with opportunity to grow when this crisis passes. […]

It is important to note that our integration work will continue. This is our plan for the future and despite the challenges of today, we must stay committed to creating an efficient operating structure. So yes, as I have said to you all in the past, that means we will see some permanent reductions during this period.

I was already dreading the impact of the Gannett-GateHouse merger. Dale Alison, the longtime managing editor of the Burlington Hawk Eye, described here last year how GateHouse decimated Iowa’s oldest daily newspaper.

The coming cuts won’t be limited to major newspaper chains. The business model that served print media well for decades has been less viable in the internet era. Many of Iowa’s smaller newspapers were already struggling before this economic downturn. The Carroll Times Herald, winner of multiple Iowa Newspaper Association awards every year, shifted from daily to twice-weekly publication in 2019. Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen told the Washington Post this week,

“Small-town businesses discovered Facebook or Google and there goes that 20-buck ad you were living on,” he said. “And we live on $20 ads. That’s how we make a living — the scraps that fall off the table.”

According to Cullen, the COVID-19 pandemic has further cut his newspaper’s advertising revenue in half. The Storm Lake Times launched a GoFundMe campaign.

We are committed to keeping our loyal and talented employees on the job, but we have to do a little begging here. Now more than ever we need your continued support, through your subscriptions and your advertising. Since the Cullen Brothers don’t have some big corporation backing us up, we are tapping into our reserves and looking for loose change under the sofa cushions to keep this boat afloat. We feel an obligation to keep publishing the information that we all need literally to survive, while facing revenue shortfalls as our advertising sales nosedived in the past month.

You can donate here or help keep the Storm Lake Times going by subscribing.

While you’re at it, find some other Iowa newspaper to support with an online subscription. The Iowa Falls Times Citizen’s five-person newsroom has published around 60 separate pieces in the past month related to COVID-19 and the pandemic’s impact in Hardin County. Jen Reed, editor of the Corydon Times Republican, reported in depth on Wayne County health authorities’ unsuccessful efforts to a stop a horse auction from proceeding. The April 2 sale drew nearly 500 people, and many other news organizations picked up KCCI-TV’s coverage of the crowded event.

All of us who are voraciously reading COVID-19 content have a stake in making sure journalists are still around to cover stories that will affect our lives going forward.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Lee Enterprises also announced furloughs or pay cuts worth two weeks’ salary for all employees this week. The daily Iowa newspapers that are part of the Lee group are the Sioux City Journal, Muscatine Journal, Mason City Globe-Gazette, Quad-City Times, Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil, and the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier. Lee also owns several weeklies in smaller Iowa towns.

  • Excellent advice re online subscriptions...

    …and as a subscriber to four Iowa newspapers, I recommend subscribing to at least one that isn’t owned by Gannett.

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