Newspapers Suffer Deep Losses as Pandemic Deals Another Blow

August 18, 2020 by Tom Ramstack

The New York Daily News put itself on the cutting edge of journalism again last week as it faces down a threat from coronavirus.

The newspaper, which has boasted one of the nation’s largest number of readers, closed its newsroom.

In fact, the owners also closed the newsrooms of their other newspapers in Annapolis, Maryland and Orlando, Florida.

They’re still in business but the newsroom employees are working remotely.

Telework is nothing new for many industries as they try to limit the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.

For newspapers, the scenario is much worse.

Tribune Publishing, which owns the New York Daily News and other newspapers nationwide, summed up the outlook for their industry in a statement.

“Out of an abundance of caution we do not anticipate having employees that can work remotely coming back into the office for the remainder of the year and into 2021,” the statement said. “With no clear path forward in terms of returning to work, and as the company evaluates its real estate needs in light of health and economic conditions brought about by the pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to permanently close the office.”

Another sign of the times came out of Wyoming, where the state lost its last true daily newspaper last month.

The Casper Star-Tribune halted its seven-days-per-week printings by eliminating its Monday and Tuesday editions.

A story announcing the change ran a subhead that said, “It could be the first time a U.S. state will publish no newspapers on Monday mornings…ever.” 

More than 36,000 mainly newspaper journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed or suffered pay cuts since the pandemic came to the United States earlier this year, according to the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based non-profit Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The job losses have been spread across about 200 newsrooms.

Television news outlets also report layoffs but they are expected to be short term until the pandemic releases its financial grip on their advertisers.

Media watchers say the pandemic might be merely one more nail in the coffin for a newspaper industry that already was suffering deep losses.

Competition from Google, Facebook and other social media took many of the advertisers that provided the bulk of their revenue. Their bread-and-butter classified ads are now being hosted on the Internet as consumers surf the Web for local services.

A bill pending in Congress would carve out an exception to antitrust law to give newspapers a bigger piece of the 73% of all digital advertising now collected by Google and Facebook.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act would allow newspapers to collectively withhold content from Google, Facebook and other online platforms unless the Internet companies negotiate terms to republish their work.

Supporters of the bill include the News Media Alliance, a trade association representing about 2,000 newspapers.

“The loss of the print ad revenue is not replaced by digital advertising due to the dominance of tech platforms,” Danielle Coffey, senior vice president of the News Media Alliance, told The Well News. (The Well News is a member of NMA)

She added, “The tech platforms control the distribution of information and collect data and revenue off the backs of quality journalism. This deprives news publishers of adequate return from their investments in reporters and newsrooms, which is necessary for local news to be around to cover the next crisis.”

Cable television and its 24-hour news broadcasts also make it difficult for newspapers to compete.

Newspaper advertising revenue dropped 62% between 2008 and 2018, from $37.8 billion to $14.3 billion, according to the nonprofit Pew Research Center.

As their financial conditions weaken, newspapers increasingly are being taken over by hedge funds looking for quick profits by drastically cutting costs and switching to more digital media.

Recent examples include Chatham Asset Management, the hedge fund that announced a deal to purchase the McClatchy Company. The acquisition gives the hedge fund control over 29 daily newspapers in 14 states.

Last year, New Media Investment Group hedge fund brokered a mega-merger of media giant Gannett with the Detroit Free-Press, the Arizona Republic and dozens of other newspapers.

The consequences of the newspaper industry’s woes could go far beyond one industry, according to University of Oregon journalism professor Damian Radcliffe.

“It would dramatically reduce journalism’s ability to deliver on its core purposes: holding authority to account, informing and empowering audiences and reflecting a community back to itself,” Radcliffe wrote in a recent editorial.

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