Last week, journalists at the Adams Publishing Group received a memo they didn't want to see: Two weeks into exhaustive reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, they learned their paychecks would be 25 percent smaller — because of the very pandemic they’d been covering nonstop.
Amid the state’s efforts to flatten the curve of the virus’ spread, events have been canceled, businesses are closing — and ads, a crucial piece of many news organizations’ revenue, are being pulled.
And many Minnesota papers are having to adjust. For Adams, which owns about 50 daily and weekly papers in Minnesota from the Iron Range to the state’s southern reaches, that means cutting workers’ hours to 30 a week.
"We're trying to position ourselves,” said Chris Knight, the paper chain’s regional president in northern Minnesota. “So when this does improve, we'll be positioned to keep going and move forward."
While pageviews on his papers' websites — including several on the Iron Range — are way up, Knight said, advertising is way down. Local businesses and national chains have slashed their ad budgets. Expect a lot fewer ad inserts in the Sunday paper for the time being, he said.
It happened slowly, then quickly.
"It started out [that] cancellations were just for the upcoming weekend,” he said, “then kind of picked up another weekend. And in some cases, there's been cancellations for the whole month of April."
Reed and Shelly Anfinson run three newspapers in west-central Minnesota: the Swift County Monitor-News, the Grant County Herald and the Stevens County Times. Reed Anfinson estimates more than half their papers' advertising revenue has vanished.
"You’ve got people who are no longer in business, not advertising. You’ve got people [that are still open, but] who are being very cautious ... with their money, who are advertising less. You’ve got the inserts that are gone," he said.
They’ve also lost advertising for school and community events that have been canceled. Anfinson said they’ve laid off three people and asked all their staff to cut hours.
"Right now, we have to position ourselves for not necessarily the first part of April, but May,” he said. “May is when the cash is going to be gone for a lot of newspapers. So unless we see a recovery somehow of Main Street, that’s when a lot of us are going to be hit hard."
Anfinson also pitches in with reporting and editing his papers. Earlier this week, he covered an evening meeting between government and hospital officials on the COVID-19 crisis. He’s often the only reporter covering such things.
"If I’m not there,” he said, “nobody in the community knows about it."
That crucial community role newspapers play — particularly at a moment when news is so critical to public health and the economy — is being threatened by the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Lisa Hills, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, has been hearing as much from editors and publishers of papers around the state.
"I’ve received emails from some of our small members that have said, ‘We don’t know if we can continue going on like this,’” she said.
Hills, whose organization represents more than 300 papers across the state, said many small papers operate on extremely tight margins.
"They are asking some employees to take voluntary furloughs or time off,” she said. “Any reduction of advertising is a serious issue for the newspapers."
Large national chains are also feeling the impact. Gannett, whose papers include the USA Today, and the St. Cloud Times, announced this week that employees will be furloughed five days a month and take a 25 percent pay cut.
The irony, of course, is that journalists are getting laid off at a time when their work is as important as it's ever been — and when readers are responding.
"We're seeing so much interest in the coverage that our newsroom is producing,” he said. “Those subscriptions are up, despite the fact that all our COVID-19 coverage is freely available to everybody right now.”
Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the business of media for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school in Florida, said that’s generally true nationwide: Subscriptions are up — and newspaper website traffic is up two to three times pre-COVID 19 levels.
"Interestingly, both companies that have chosen to keep their paywall up for [COVID-19] coverage, and the many that are offering it for free as a community service, are seeing really great growth in their paid digital subscriptions, as well," he said.
Still, he said, that's not nearly enough to keep up with the decline in advertising. The key will be whether readers renew their subscriptions after the coronavirus crisis subsides.
Jana Peterson, who founded the Pine Knot News paper in Cloquet in 2018, is hopeful. The Pine Knot just received a $5,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 coverage. And the paper is already seeing a slight uptick in subscribers.
"I do think that people, in times like these, realize how important newspapers are,” she said. “I so much appreciate that support.”
She said the paper has gotten about 10 new subscribers in the past week — but when the subscriber base is 1,500, that’s not insignificant.
“But subscribers are maybe 25 percent of the money that we need,” she said. “So unless we see a huge uptick, life will remain a challenge. It was challenging anyway. But I do think that people around here really appreciate the local coverage."
Edmonds said he thinks the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic will push many papers to reduce the number of days they offer the news in print. This week the Tampa Bay Times announced it will only print its Wednesday and Sunday editions. The rest of the week, the paper will be available only online.
"I do believe the current crisis is going to accelerate that a lot,” Edmonds said. “And it will begin to happen more widely — I'm going to say, within the next month."
The Duluth News Tribune announced this week that beginning Monday, the newspaper will downsize the printed edition to a single-section, 12-page newspaper, dedicated mainly to local content, Monday through Saturday. It will continue to publish the regular Sunday paper.
"It's no secret the newspaper industry has been transitioning from a print-centric business model to a digital membership model,” publisher Neal Ronquist said in the article announcing the changes. “Unfortunately, the timeline for that transformation has been radically pushed up as a result of the unprecedented economic disruption caused by COVID-19."
Ronquist said while he’d like to avoid eliminating the printed newspaper on certain days — what the Tampa Bay Times has done — “it might be a possibility down the road if economic conditions do not improve."
Meanwhile, newspaper publishers across Minnesota say that, despite the downturn, they'll continue to focus on their mission: Providing the first draft of history of what is proving to be a globally historic moment.
"In Benson, we have not missed a publication since 1886,” Reed Anfinson said. “Through two World Wars, the polio epidemic, the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, we have continued to publish. And you go back and you read the records of those times and you see the struggles of your community. So we’ll continue to publish."
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.
Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.
The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.