Don Rogers: Papers change to survive
Now as ever, life and safety come first, always.
It just so happens that the best approach to the pandemic reaching storm stage is the best approach to the economy screeching to a near stop.
That is, hunker down, keep our bodies socially distant as we find other ways to connect, support our local businesses as best we can, adjust, help each other through.
And especially, most especially, keep our older neighbors and friends and family as much out of COVID-19’s path as we can. It can strike down the young, too, but not nearly so much as the old.
This also is the way to ease the strain to come on the hospitals and medical professionals, as we’ve seen in Italy and in Wuhan.
This is how we’ll get through as a community and how our suddenly wrecked economy will get through, I hope more fender-bender for most and as few businesses totaled as possible.
This is important because we’re not only talking about business. Government depends on the health of the business community and the employees who pay those taxes. Retirees depend on both, ultimately. We really are in this together.
The final scale of the pandemic and economic crash is unknown. But the facts on the ground are plain enough and likely to grow scarier. Business can’t pick up again until we weather the pandemic. Let’s not be stupid.
Local media crunched
Our business at The Union and the Sierra Sun in large part is based on businesses that depend on people gathering — shopping, eating, going to events, buying homes, getting outdoors, all sorts of activities. Suddenly, our revenue has fallen by half at the same time we and other local news media in similar straits are counted on to cover an unprecedented crisis.
We’re not the hardest hit. We’re not a restaurant, a “nonessential” shop downtown, a bar, a wedding business, a ski resort. Events make up only part of our business.
And we’re not alone. At the lake, the Sierra Sun shares in the journalism mission and economic pain with Moonshine Ink, and in the foothills The Union with KNCO, KVMR and YubaNet.
It’s a cruel turn, perhaps, that soaring online audience does not translate well to our businesses. The giant networks Google and Facebook gobble up about 75% of that pie, followed by other aggregators and programmatic entities, none footing the bills for reporters and editors and the coverage they take along with the bulk of the online revenue.
This simply is our world for the moment. We’ll figure it out or we won’t, frankly. But locally, the papers and radio stations and online-only services are what we have. Now how do we survive? After all, if no paper, no radio station, no online news organization, well, that means almost no reporters. Pretty much just the vagaries of social media, only stripped of news posts.
Our papers around the lake are free to the consumer, which normally is the way it has to work where so many readers are visiting from elsewhere. This also makes those operations more vulnerable to the ups and downs of advertising in a place where there’s such a thing as too much snow as well as too little, where a big fire can ruin summer. These papers are the ones hurting the most in my orbit.
So I was happily stunned when our publisher at the South Lake Tribune, Rob Galloway, wrote a letter seeking donations, a letter he graciously put my name under at the Sierra Sun and we emailed out at 4 p.m. on the dot Tuesday.
Well, donations flowed fast enough to fill the screen in my inbox by 4:15 and kept coming.
Donations, like subscriptions, don’t go far but still help keep us going. We can report that much better and help our businesses get their messages out that much better, and perhaps keep going through this. Perhaps most important, we can do our part that much better with the other local news media to keep our community together even as we hunker down apart in our homes.
You’ll notice changes in the print copies of the papers through this period, too. Like others, we have to pare down as best we can to match the shift in income. For us, that means smaller papers, fewer copies (while offering more online impressions to advertisers) to match fewer people at the lake right now, fewer hours and less pay for us workers, open positions unfilled.
A pause on Monday
We need to operate at the level of our business through this period. As the business community and we adjust, we have to shrink painfully right now and then hopefully grow where businesses adjust to meet consumer demand that still is there, as well as when the storm passes, clouds clear — all invisible, of course — and life picks up again as it must.
We’re also planning to pause Monday editions of The Union through this period, beginning as soon as the April 6 edition. We’ll keep you posted. While we hear often how print subscriptions are so expensive, we’re not high chargers in our industry, and subscriptions alas don’t come close to supporting the operation, not even a fifth of the bills.
We ask subscribers to let us do this, and we’ll avoid asking for rate increases for the time being. This way we can keep our news force as strong as possible. They’ll file their reports for Mondays online as if filling a print edition.
Meantime, we’re shedding expenses everywhere, much like throwing everything off an air balloon to keep it in the air that much longer. This is the world we find ourselves in, much like you, hunkered down or perhaps fortunate enough to have an outside job.
And then, far more serious than anything we’re going through, are the health professionals we all are counting on. In Wuhan, Italy, Spain, Seattle, New York and in all probability here, they will prove our heroes. They won’t have a choice.
We know by the experience elsewhere — from the news — that our best bet for life, health and the economy for now is to stay safe, stay sequestered, figure out ways to buy local, and in these ways we’ll get through this as a community. So yeah, let’s do that. Then roar out of the gate afterward.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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