Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Coronavirus consequences in rural communities (Part XI): the media

As a ruralist, I found myself annoyed a few weeks ago when the New York Times ran this story about how small newspapers are hurting for ad dollars as a consequence of businesses shuttering to comply with self-quarantine and "shelter in place" orders.  My annoyance stemmed from the story's metrocentric focus, mostly on alternative weeklies in places like St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Chattanooga.

I thus found Erik Wemple's piece in the Washington Post more appropriate.  Wemple writes about the Storm Lake Times, in Buena Vista County, Iowa.  The paper, which the headline characterizes as "storied," is certainly that--not least because its editor, Art Cullen, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing a few years ago.  Here's the lede for Wemple's story:
Buena Vista County, Iowa, has yet to log a positive coronavirus case. The media economy associated with the pandemic, however, has arrived. “Advertising has disappeared, so we will lose money in March and it was tough enough before this,” says 62-year-old Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly community newspaper covering Buena Vista and parts of neighboring counties in the northwestern corner of Iowa. 
* * *  
Pulitzers reward fine work; they don’t change business models. Even before the coronavirus hit the Storm Lake Times, the newspaper was fighting the same impoverishing forces that have gutted local news outlets across the country. Ads on Facebook and Google, noted Cullen in an interview last year, had gobbled up a good bit of his revenue. “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.”
By the way, the paper has a GoFundMe page.  I donated.

If this is what's happening to the Storm Lake Times, imagine how other rural and small town newspapers are faring as advertising revenue slumps.  Some earlier posts about contemporary struggles of that sector of the media market are here and hereThis background is from April Simpson for Pew's Stateline last fall.

According to a recent story from the Associated Press, more than 2100 cities and towns have lost a paper in the past decade and a half.  That recent AP story mentions of rural Nevada, where Battle Born Media "is scaling back or ceasing publication of six rural weekly newspapers."  Here's a story by the Las Vegas, Nevada newspaper about that turn of events.  The AP story also discusses what's happening at the Sun Chronicle of Attleboro, Massachusetts, population 43,000, but/and part of the greater Boston metro area.  That paper has just a dozen newsroom employees left, as falling ad revenue has forced it to lay off the political reporter, as well as various business-side staff.  Here's a story out of Montana about the rural newspaper crisis, this one by the Billings Gazette.

I'm looking at the latest issue of my hometown newspaper, the Newton County Times, dated April 1, 2020. Ads do not seem sharply down over past weeks, but shelter-in-place instructions are relatively new to Arkansas.  Also, much of the advertising seems to be placed by non-local businesses, such as those selling steel buildings, walk-in showers, and dental insurance.  There are also, predictably, ads for the only pharmacy in town, a monument (tombstone) company, the local internet provider--oh, and some senior living facilities in neighboring counties.  Sadly, the demand for those products is staying constant, if not rising.  There's an ad for a local tow truck operator and one for an autobody shop. Then there are the classifieds--and the ads encouraging people to place classifieds, including in the larger daily paper in the neighboring county, which is published by the same company as the Newton County Times

Also, it's good for the Newton County Times that it published an advertising heavy supplement the prior week, when it was touting Newton County as a tourism destination--somewhat ironically, as I recently wrote about here.

Postscript:  From the Brookings Institute on April 8, 2020.  From Clara Hendrickson's report:
Amid the public health crisis, many communities across the U.S. suffer from a lack of local reporting. Of the 2,485 U.S. counties that reported COVID-19 cases as of April 6th, 50% are news deserts (home to only one local newspaper or none at all). Fifty-seven percent of counties that have reported cases of COVID-19 lack a daily newspaper and 37% saw local newspapers disappear between 2004 and 2019. It is impossible to know what will not be told in the communities that have seen local newspapers disappear in recent years, but undoubtedly, important stories will go uncovered as the coronavirus spreads across the country.
Postscript:  From New Mexico Senator Tom Udall's Twitter account on the afternoon on April 8, 2020, re distress amongst New Mexico's media and his proposal for federal assistance to help alleviate it:

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