Coronavirus has infected Washington’s media ecosystem.
The statewide shutdown of most businesses and a halt to events, ordered to slow the virus’ spread, have dried up advertising revenues at news outlets across the state.
Layoffs and furloughs have followed, putting additional pressure on the remaining reporters and editors, who are already working overtime — and usually working from home — to feed the public’s need for news about the virus.
Almost no paper in Washington has remained unscathed.
Sound Publishing, which owns 43 titles across the state including the Everett Daily Herald and the Peninsula Daily News, announced furloughs and layoffs Tuesday across its 350-person staff. Six part-time reporters were left producing 11 Seattle-area papers, including the Renton Reporter and Federal Way Mirror, publisher Josh O’Connor confirmed.
Sound Publishing will also stop printing nine of its 13 free community weeklies, O’Connor said. Remaining employees are working reduced hours.
Tennessee-based Adams Publishing Group, which owns nine Washington papers, including dailies The Skagit Valley Herald and The Ellensburg Daily Record, on Tuesday reduced the workweek to 30 hours for all employees and executives, according to a letter Adams sent to its workers.
In Spokane, The Inlander temporarily laid off eight of its 35 employees, including two editorial staff.
“First layoffs we’ve had in 27 years,” Inlander publisher Ted McGregor Jr. said in an email.
Seattle Met magazine sent its eight editorial staff to part-time Tuesday, said publisher Nicole Vogel. The magazine is owned by SagaCity media, which produces content for tourism bureaus, including Seattle’s cruise ship terminal guide. All of that revenue has now dried up as the cruise season is on hold.
“Advertising business has fallen off a cliff,” Vogel said.
Seattle-based marijuana review site Leafly — owned by Michael Blue and Christian Groh, who made a fortune taking public the related Canadian marijuana company Tilray — laid off 71 employees Monday, according to a notice filed with the state Employment Security Department. And in Oregon, EO Media Group Wednesday laid off 47 people across its 12 newspapers, including the Bend Bulletin and two papers near the Washington border in Long Beach, the Chinook Observer and Coast River Business Journal.
At The Seattle Times, most sports reporters have been reassigned to other sections amid blanket cancellations of entire sports seasons, but the paper has not suffered layoffs and is not expected to do so, said President Alan Fisco.
Unlike other local outlets, the majority — 63% — of The Seattle Times’ revenue now comes from its subscriber base. Digital subscribers are growing “dramatically,” Fisco said.
“That allows us to weather this a little better than many, many other newspapers,” he said.
Still, he said, the paper’s advertising revenue has taken a major hit.
“Travel … has virtually evaporated,” he said. “Entertainment has gone away in droves. Restaurants are closed. Auto advertising is less significant, but that business has all but gone.”
The paper has seen an uptick in advertising among grocery stores eager to let the public know they remain open, Fisco said, but it’s not enough to replace the lost revenue.
“We’re trying to take advantage of every opportunity we can, but those opportunities are few and far between,” he said.
The Yakima Herald-Republic, which is owned by The Seattle Times Co. but maintains local operations and decision-making, has also seen a drop in advertising in the past week, Publisher Bob Crider said.
That was most apparent in Wednesday’s newspaper, which had just one grocery store insert; normally there are several.
The Herald-Republic’s commercial printing operation has also taken a hit. The segment has declined in recent years, but it accelerated in the last week, Crider said.
“Our second-largest commercial printing client suspended publication,” Crider said, noting that it’s not clear when it would resume. “We had another fairly large commercial print client suspend publication for a month. We hope they’ll be back in May.”
One bright spot is the Herald-Republic’s digital operation. Digital subscriptions have increased and yakimaherald.com has seen a sizable increase in activity.
For March 13-26, the number of unique users increased by 187% from the same period a year ago. The number of sessions has increased by 198% and page views have increased 105%.
The paper’s coronavirus coverage has attracted 1.1 million page views overall.
“People are thirsty for the news and they’re coming to us to get it,” Crider said. “That’s one of the positives.”
There has not been any talk of staff reductions, but Crider stressed that is the status “at this time.”
One area that could be affected in the future is the newspaper’s packaging center. With fewer advertising inserts and commercial printing activity, there’s less need for staff, Crider said.
“Things are changing so rapidly,” he said. “If we were talking a week ago, we didn’t have the reduction in commercial printing. … This thing is just so fluid from a business standpoint.”
Yakima and Washington are not unique. Media outlets across the country have announced cutbacks.
The Louisiana Advocate, the largest newsroom in that state, furloughed a tenth of its 400-person workforce due to a drop in ad revenue. Remaining employees began four-day workweeks. Other newspapers — in California, Florida, Michigan, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia — have also seen layoffs. High-fashion bible W Magazine suspended print publication and furloughed much of its staff Thursday.
The canary in the coal mine for Washington’s media industry was Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, which on March 13 laid off 18 employees, including six reporters and editors. The same day, the paper suspended production of its biweekly print edition.
Editor Christopher Frizelle blamed the cutbacks on the “hellscape of unforeseen economic events brought on by the coronavirus.” Earlier that week, Gov. Jay Inslee had banned gatherings of more than 250 people, effectively canceling many of the events that would typically advertise in or sell tickets through The Stranger.
Some of the laid-off employees had been with the paper for decades. As they cleaned their desks of a professional lifetime of belongings, the six remaining reporters and editors huddled on couches to plan “how we were even going to begin to tackle the biggest thing that had ever hit Seattle,” said staff writer Nathalie Graham.
“We were flouting social distancing guidelines,” said staff writer Rich Smith, “by crying and hugging each other.”
Even as the industry’s revenue base collapses, the reading public is consuming more news than ever.
The Stranger’s blog has seen an 84% increase in readership over the past three weeks, compared with the same period last year, according to analytics shared by publisher Laurie Saito. Seattle Met’s online traffic is “up triple digits,” Vogel said.
But for most, that boost in readership hasn’t translated to revenue. As ad dollars continue to fall, at least three publications have asked readers for donations.
In Everett, the Herald made its plea in an email.
“Advertisers large and small are melting away as you read this. We will do our best, but without local advertising revenue, The Daily Herald cannot survive,” O’Connor wrote. “I cannot stress enough the peril that we are facing.”
The Stranger and Blaine’s The Northern Light also asked readers to pitch in.
The Stranger has received nearly 6,000 donations, Saito said, in amounts from $3 to $10,000. They don’t match what the paper needs to keep the lights on, but they’re helpful, she said.
Inslee nodded to the importance of news outlets in this state of emergency during a Monday address announcing the closure of nonessential businesses.
“The media has been absolutely critical to keep all of us informed about this virus,” he said.
The Seattle Times’ Fisco held out hope that government funds earmarked to support local media outlets through the crisis might be forthcoming.
“There is an urgent need for support, either federal or state, or the industry is going to continue to see layoffs in big numbers,” he said.