As Texas reopened for business in stages, newspapers focused on their communities as they and their fellow hometown businesses navigated the “new normal” of the COVID-19 era.
Each week in May, Gov. Greg Abbott announced new phases of the reopening designed to restart the Texas economy made moribund by the coronavirus response. Limits on capacity were maintained during each phase, along with other safety recommendations, such as encouraging people to wear masks and wash their hands frequently.
Socially distanced graduation ceremonies and innovative ways of celebrating local high school classes of 2020 topped many front pages while Texas schools remained closed through the end of the academic year, eliminating UIL spring events. As reopened businesses looked for ways to promote their products and services, redesigned graduation promotions were among the first vehicles for new advertising revenue.
In many areas, restrictions on mass gatherings prohibited most community festivals and other events. In cities of all sizes, these events are annual sources of revenue from tourism.
As the economy slowly emerged from the pandemic shutdown, high unemployment lingered and financial reserves dwindled. Many businesses did not survive quarantine.
“Local businesses basically had to shut down the past two months, leaving owners and employees high and dry, some of whom already operated on a razor-thin margin,” Publisher Ken Cooke noted an editorial published in the Fredericksburg Standard Radio-Post May 13. His editorial warned of a long road to economic recovery while praising the work of local economic development and chamber organizations.
“We’ve seen firsthand the gravitas with which the challenge of throwing lifelines into a sea of struggling businesses has been met,” Canadian Record Publisher Laurie Ezzell-Brown wrote in praise of her county’s economic development council. “We’ve witnessed the result of that hard work, and celebrated knowing that jobs and businesses have been saved — if not forever, at least for now.”
While keeping their readers informed with COVID-19 news and data during the reopening, newspapers also sought out ways to support their fellow small businesses, reporting information about grant and loan programs and offering specially priced advertising packages.
The Texas newspaper industry, already fighting financial declines, adapted to absorb more hits to the bottom line. In addition to furloughs and other payroll reductions, many newspapers reduced print frequency while maintaining eEditions and online news updates on their websites and social media pages. Several newspapers closed and others merged with sister publications during the darkest days of the pandemic. More than two dozen daily and semi-weekly newspapers reduced print frequency, and some weeklies skipped a few print editions to save costs.
In many cases, readers understood the forces making these changes necessary.
“It was not an easy decision but it was not unlike the ones that most businesses ... have had to make during the past two months,” Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel Publisher Rick Craig wrote April 29, noting with appreciation the understanding and support received from readers and advertisers. The newspaper switched from a schedule of six print editions per week to twice a week and from carrier delivery to mail delivery. “The move was made to help protect the jobs of the journalists, marketing consultants, office staff and others that produce the news and advertising that you need to make informed decisions,” Craig added.
Perhaps most importantly, as essential businesses during the pandemic newspapers maintained their watchdog function, covering local governments and issues unique to their communities.
On March 16, Gov. Abbott waived one provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act to allow local governments to use virtual and telephonic open meetings to reduce face-to-face contact during restrictions on mass gatherings.
Virtual meetings were allowed to help cities and counties keep the number of people in the room during a public meeting to ten.
“However, the public must be given the ability to watch or listen to the meeting and interact during public comment periods,” Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas Executive Director Kelley Shannon wrote. “The waiver also means a quorum of the governing body doesn’t have to be physically present in one place.”
As the phased reopening of businesses proceeded in May, the original 30-day temporary suspension of TOMA meeting requirements was extended. Local government operations were allowed to resume May 1, including county and municipal governmental operations “relating to permitting, recordation and document-filing services.”
In many small towns, local newspapers assisted their city councils and other groups in live streaming their meetings and complying with the requirement to have a means for the public to participate through telephone or online communication.
Shannon also noted that many governmental bodies, as allowed under newly established post-Hurricane Harvey law, are sending “catastrophe notices” to the Texas Attorney General’s Office to suspend requirements of the Texas Public Information Act for a seven-day period if they are affected by a catastrophe.
On June 4, Freedom of information advocates, lawmakers and business leaders will participate in a webinar, Government Transparency in the Age of a Pandemic, discussing these measures made possible by changes passed in the last legislative session. The free event is sponsored by the United Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce. More details will be released soon.