Readers, But Not Ads, Flock to Local Newspapers

From a Wall Street Journal story, by Lukas I. Alpert and Keach Hagey, headlined “Coronvirus Is Giving Readers Plenty of News. But Local Outlets Are Still Teetering.”

Readers are flocking to news sites during the coronavirus pandemic. The media has a basic commodity—information—that people are craving as they try to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

And yet, financially, the crisis is delivering a punishing blow to already struggling local publishers, from big-city metro papers to small-town outlets.

Web traffic is up about 30% among the top news sites and has doubled for some publishers, according to data from Comscore Inc. Many news sites have recorded solid gains in digital subscriptions, even as many have made coronavirus coverage available to nonsubscribers.

But the immediate boost in readership won’t offset the virus’s brutal impact on the pillars holding up the business, publishing executives say. Local advertising spending could fall this year by at least a quarter, amounting to a decline of more than $30 billion, according to one estimate. . . .

“So many papers were already teetering on the brink,” said Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “If we really see a collapse of ad revenue, this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a lot of places.”

Newspaper companies have struggled for years to diversify their businesses and rely less on advertising and print revenue. Select U.S. national papers have had success building robust digital businesses, while local outlets have generally failed to make the transition.

Now, the new coronavirus crisis could become a cruel test of whether newsrooms can survive on digital revenue.

“It may turn out that the impact of the virus on local newspapers is analogous to its effects on people,” said Jim Friedlich, the executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. “The most vulnerable may not survive.”. . .

On Monday, the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, laid off 11 staffers just weeks after instituting an across-the-board pay cut. Paul Tash, the Times’ chairman and chief executive, said the paper had already seen its event-related advertising disappear and has had inquiries from big retailers about canceling future advertising.

“It’s hard to know what is going to happen next,” he said. “I just hope this passes as quickly as possible.”. . .

Newsrooms across the nation have swarmed the coronavirus story, redirecting resources from coverage areas that seem less pressing now. Sports reporters at the Tampa Bay Times were immediately tapped once sports leagues’ seasons were put on hold. “Everyone is a coronavirus reporter now,” said Mr. Tash. . . .

Whatever the long-term financial impact of the crisis, David Chavern, president of News Media Alliance, called it a welcome “refocusing on local” after years of readership shifts to national news outlets. “People really want to know what is happening in their county and at their local supermarkets right now. No one else but the local news organization is going to provide that kind of info,” he said.

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