News outlets strain against money ills worsened by pandemic losses

By: - July 6, 2021 8:33 pm

For the past year, as readers searched for the latest COVID-19 news, local newspapers continued to cover news from virtual city council meetings to school mask controversies, despite the strain the pandemic has inflicted on ad revenues. Photo contributed by Kevin Hall

As advertising sales return to pre-pandemic numbers at local newspapers, industry experts are both optimistic about the near future and concerned about the overall, long term health of Georgia’s news industry.

For the past year, as readers searched for the latest COVID-19 news, local newspapers continued to cover news from virtual city council meetings to school mask controversies, despite the drain the pandemic has been on the media industry.

News outlets in the state and throughout the rest of the country have suffered a decrease in revenue as a result of local businesses slashing advertising spending, a primary source of revenue for local media, during the pandemic. Still, despite ongoing challenges, some publications say they’re slowly seeing positive signs that relief from the hardships spurred by the pandemic is near. 

The Savannah Morning News, a Gannett publication, has seen its digital subscriptions grow by 38% in 2021. Athens Banner-Herald, also owned by the company, increased its online subscriptions by 44%.

“It’s no secret that there have been some choppy waters for the industry. But, here in Savannah, Athens and Augusta, we’re growing digital subscriptions at an accelerated rate,” said Rana Cash, Georgia state director for Gannett and executive director of the Savannah Morning News. “I think people are finding value in the work that we do.”

As journalism-focused organizations such as the Poynter Institute kept tabs on the newsrooms that were experiencing layoffs, furloughs and closures during the pandemic, several publications, including those owned by Gannett made the downsizing lists. According to Poynter, 500 people lost their jobs when the company’s staff endured furloughs and cost reductions, as well as buyouts.

Cash said the company had planned to offer buyouts before the pandemic as a result of their merger with GateHouse.

“Some of that happened during the pandemic, but it wasn’t necessarily a result of the pandemic,” she said.

Of the “few” people who took advantage of buyouts here in Georgia, Cash said many of the employees retired. 

“For the most part, these were veteran journalists who had worked in our newsrooms for a long time so this was an opportunity for them to reset the next chapter in their lives,” she said. “We were able to backfill those roles. Those weren’t positions that just went away and we never saw them again.”

Gannett didn’t qualify for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but Cash said the Athens Banner-Herald was able to make hires last year thanks to a Report for America grant. She said The Savannah Morning News is continuing to hire new staff, including a new reporter dedicated to covering food, dining, arts and culture next month.

Eric Denty, publisher of The Jesup Press-Sentinel, said receiving a PPP loan through the Small Business Administration allowed the newspaper to bring staff back to normal hours after cutting hours and pay early in the pandemic. Denty said about two people out of 20 were laid off from the newspaper.

“We always plan for the worst case, but [the PPP loan] came through and it was very helpful,” he said.

Although the company didn’t qualify for the second PPP loan, primarily because it didn’t meet the 25% revenue loss requirement, Denty said advertising has slightly improved now that businesses are slowly opening and people are getting more comfortable with going out. 

Keith Herndon, a University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication professor, said he worries the current business spike is merely a moment of “respite” for newspapers.

“As those businesses reopen you might see some of that advertising revenue come back. But it’s still not going to be enough to offset these longer term trends,” he said. 

Herndon said it’s important to remember that many newspapers were already operating at a financial disadvantage before COVID-19. McClatchy, a national newspaper chain that owns The (Macon) Telegraph and the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, declined to comment for this story but announced last year that it was going into bankruptcy.

“I think a lot of the economic trends that are affecting newspapers are with us for a while. Pandemic aside, those trends aren’t changing,” Herndon said. “We’re still seeing a significant erosion of revenue that’s left the traditional newspaper market and that’s not coming back.”

In the past year, a crop of new non-profit media organizations throughout the state have experimented with non-traditional funding models in hopes of providing news to niche communities throughout the state.

“I think that there’s a big push for different types of structures that are not totally based on either advertising or subscription models,” Herndon said, adding that these publications are able to benefit from grants and generous philanthropists. Recent non-profit launches have included the digital publications Atlanta Civic Circle and Canopy Atlanta. (The nonprofit Georgia Recorder launched in August 2019.)

The Current, which launched late last year and focuses on delivering investigative news to coastal Georgia, recently announced that it has received two grants that will allow for the hiring of a full-time environmental reporter. A press release from earlier this month revealed “The R. Howard Dobbs Jr. Foundation has awarded The Current $300,000 over a three-year period, and the Bobolink Foundation has awarded $60,000 over the same period to launch The Current’s Coastal Environment Lab.” 

Still, Herndon said it’s too early to tell if these nonprofit models will fill the void left by traditional newspapers anytime soon.

“We’re not seeing enough of those (examples) where we can say the nonprofit model is going to come to the rescue of the newspaper industry,” he said.

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Jewel Wicker
Jewel Wicker

Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta-based reporter who has written for publications such as Wall Street Journal Magazine, GQ, NPR and Atlanta magazine. She previously worked as a staff reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.