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The Early Warning Of Impending Disaster Came From Its Sister Paper

For the Portland Mercury, the early warning of impending disaster came from its sister paper in the Pacific Northwest. 

The Stranger, which was distributed for free every other week in Seattle, was at ground zero of the first full-blown U.S. coronavirus outbreak. Almost overnight, the community paper's advertising business collapsed as the pandemic emptied movie theaters, music clubs, concert halls and arts venues.

“That’s when we knew we were in trouble and that we had to make moves fast. We knew it was coming to Portland,” Portland Mercury editor in chief Wm. Steven Humphrey told USA TODAY. “We took drastic measures right away to stay in business and hopefully ride it out.”

Nearly every advertiser that might place an ad and every spot readers might pick up a copy – bars, restaurants or theaters – had gone dark. The small but feisty paper, which had been distributed for two decades as reliably as the Oregon rain, stopped publishing its print edition. The final gut punch for Humphrey was letting go 10 of 18 staffers as the ban on public gatherings choked advertising sales. 

During the nation's struggle with the coronavirus, the outlook for news organizations – whether legacy newspapers with robust online operations or digital-only outlets – is precarious.

Last week, in a bid to avoid layoffs, BuzzFeed said it would cut employees’ pay by as much as 25%, and CEO Jonah Peretti would forgo pay during the coronavirus crisis. “We don’t know how long this will last, but we want to move quickly to make sure our business remains sustainable,” Peretti wrote in a memo to staff.

Staffers appeared supportive under the circumstances. "Personally, I'd rather lose money than lose colleagues," Jane Lytvynenko, senior reporter at BuzzFeed News, tweeted.

Monday, Gannett, which owns USA TODAY and more than 250 local papers, told employees it would begin a series of immediate cost reductions, including a furlough program in its news division in April, May and June, as a result of the economic pressures brought on by the pandemic. Other departments are taking separate cost-saving measures. CEO Paul Bascobert told employees, "I will not be taking any pay until these furloughs and pay reductions have been reversed."

McClatchy, one of the largest U.S. news publishers, is in bankruptcy. Chains such as Gannett, Lee Enterprises and Tribune, are also deeply in debt. 

The pain is felt across the industry. The Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s biggest newspaper, will deliver only twice a week on Wednesdays and Sundays, starting next week – a move that should help it offset a 50% drop in advertising, according to publisher Paul Tash.

"In the last two weeks, retailers have canceled more than $1 million in advertising they had already scheduled," Tash said in a statement. "Until ad revenues recover, we must sharply reduce the costs of producing and delivering an edition in print."

Tash said in an interview Monday that he belongs to a Business News generation who loves to feel the printed page with the first cup of coffee. But as thousands turn to the web for updates on the coronavirus, the crisis offers an opportunity to help readers get comfortable with the online version of the newspaper, as well.

"This isn't the new and permanent normal," Tash said. "But we hope people will find it an acceptable substitute."

Across the country, The Los Angeles Times is cutting back on print sections and won’t be hiring for open positions “other than those essential to keep the presses rolling and ensure distribution of the paper," said spokeswoman Hillary Manning. 

“As members of the news media, which is designated as an essential business and continues to operate under challenging circumstances, we are focused on supporting our existing workforce to ensure their health, safety and well-being during the crisis,” she said in a statement.

When the coronavirus outbreak struck, the news industry was still suffering the lingering effects from the Great Recession, the unrelenting march of readers from print to online and the precipitous decline of print advertising dollars flowing to newspapers. 

Now, newsrooms and news markets across the country are bracing for a sudden and potentially devastating broadside that could shutter or significantly hobble publications just as communities stricken by the coronavirus need them most.

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For newspapers in major metro markets to small-town news outlets, the extent of the pandemic's economic toll is not yet known, but it is already drawing comparisons to the 2008 financial crisis – only this time it could be worse, with even more dire consequences for the industry, analysts say.

The response from news organizations covering one of the world's biggest news events while watching the lifeblood of their businesses drain with each store closure and each shelter-in-place order has been  swift and painful.

Print editions have been canceled. Journalists have been laid off. And some papers have thrown in the towel, the preexisting challenges to their businesses turning the coronavirus into a crisis they simply don't think they can survive. 

Emergency measures are desperately needed to stop the bleeding, such as tapping federal bailout money and ramping up appeals to potential subscribers, as Americans are glued to the news during the pandemic, according to Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst with Newsonomics.

Craig Aaron, president and co-CEO of Free Press, a group advocating for media transformation, last week proposed doubling federal funds for public media and establishing a “First Amendment Fund" in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review titled "Journalism Needs a Stimulus. Here’s What it Should Look Like."

Steven Waldman, co-founder of Report for America, and Charles Sennott, CEO of the GroundTruth Project, wrote a piece in The Atlantic, “The Coronavirus Is Killing Local News," in which they called for news organizations to be considered in future stimulus packages, such as placing public health ads in local media outlets.

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Analysts anticipate that newspapers may shrink the size of daily editions, reduce the number of print editions or stop printing altogether. Other ideas being floated include asking foundations to subsidize coverage of the coronavirus crisis or offering employees extended unpaid time off. 

Some help is coming from a major internet player. Facebook announced Monday it would give $25 million in grants to local news outlets and spend $75 million on a marketing initiative for the news industry.

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