As the state tentatively began reopening an economy ravaged by the coronavirus shutdown,Texas newspapers relied on grit and ingenuity to keep fighting, providing vital coverage in the face of a financial firestorm.
With untold thousands of business closed and most advertisers missing in action, newspaper executives acknowledged that survival is increasingly difficult at a time when dependable reporting is essential.
“COVID-19 has shown the value of local news, boosted audiences and increased subscriptions even though many outlets have dropped their paywalls for pandemic coverage,” Mark Jacob of Local News Initiative wrote recently. “However, COVID-19 could also be fatal” to many newspapers, he added.
Some Texas community newspapers qualified for forgivable Payroll Protection Plan loans under the federal CARES Act program for small businesses. Newspapers owned by companies with more than 1,000 employees are not eligible, however. The Wall Street Journal reported that chain-owned papers serving 80 percent of the nation’s newspaper readers are ineligible for the aid.
Printing costs, another huge newspaper expense, also are not an eligible category for the forgivable federal loans.
In hopes that other aid programs might be forthcoming, newspaper industry groups are lobbying aggressively to get chain-owned newspapers covered and to get printing costs included under loan rules. Additionally, industry groups and supportive members of Congress are pushing for federal agencies to place advertising in local media to help shore up shaky bottom lines.
Meanwhile, private-sector grant programs have been established to help small businesses and local news media.
“Like many businesses, we applied for the PPP loans and fortunately were approved. We’ve also been exploring other grant opportunities,” Publisher Ken Cooke wrote in the Fredericksburg Standard Radio-Post. “Facebook and Google, which have done as much to damage our industry in the past decade as any entity, are offering local news grants.
A lot of us are swallowing our pride and applying to these giants that have lorded over the news ecosystem and sold advertising around our content, to which they control the digital gateway.”
The first round of Facebook grant awards included 18 Texas news operations. Most were community newspapers.
The crisis is pushing newspaper executives to take unprecedented measures to ensure their sustainability and relevance in a post-pandemic world, according to a recent survey by Cribb, Greene & Cope. These measures include temporary furloughs and changes in print publication frequency while maintaining e-edition and online news coverage.
In recent weeks, a dozen of Texas’ daily newspapers announced reductions in the number of print editions produced each week. Many semiweeklies dropped back to once-weekly publication, and some weeklies have skipped print editions or temporarily stopped producing print editions.
Doing more with less is old hat for newspaper staffs. So is shifting focus according to the needs of the community. With normal school activities and sports suspended, reporters are concentrating intensely on keeping readers informed about matters directly related to the “new normal” — including news on local COVID-19 infection rates, how-to information about accessing online church services and where to find home-schooling resources.
The Liberty Vindicator responded to a call for puzzle books and games from local nursing homes with a special section that turned out to be a profitable advertising vehicle as well.
“A local nursing home asked for help publicizing its request for donations of large print puzzles and games to help keep residents occupied during the pandemic, and we decided to create our own,” Vindicator Editor Casey Stinnett said. “We initially thought it might make a 12-page tab, but local businesses so enthusiastically got behind it that it grew to 32 pages. Our ad sales rep says it is the easiest thing he has ever sold.”
With high school graduations canceled, community newspapers are helping local seniors and their families commemorate the milestone through innovative features such as senior spotlights in print sections and online features. As one newspaper’s promo for a senior spotlight read: “Because of shelter-in-place rules, you can’t bring the photos to our office, so email us the photos and information.”
Meanwhile, newspapers are following local government actions very closely. Keeping an eye on government entities to ensure public access and accountability is even more important during the pandemic, when some officials have been tempted to relax transparency in the name of expediency.
That hasn’t been easy. Gov. Greg Abbott suspended one portion of the Texas Open Meetings Act dealing with public gatherings to allow video conference or telephone meetings by boards, councils and other elected groups. Some newspapers have found it necessary to remind officials that all other aspects of the law remain in effect — including posting meeting notices in advance and providing public access to meetings, even virtual meetings. In addition to maintaining watchdog coverage, some community newspapers are also making videos of meetings available through their social media and websites.
Community newspapers are keeping the spotlight on their hard-hit local businesses with shop-local promotions, pages of contact information about local businesses offering online and delivery services in line with shelter-in-place rules, salutes to healthcare providers, supporting local economic development groups in building funds for small business grants, and rallying calls to unite their communities.
And publishers have kept readers abreast of their hometown paper’s situation.
Yvonne Mintz, publisher of The Facts in Clute, wrote April 26 that her paper would now publish five days per week rather than seven.
“We take very seriously our commitment to serving our community, especially in times of crisis...This change positions The Facts to continue our legacy of quality community journalism for the long haul,” Mintz wrote.
“We will adapt and do our absolute best to serve readers well through this hard time and beyond. We will get through this trying time together and remain committed to supporting local businesses and the community we love.”
Laurie Ezell Brown, publisher of the Canadian Record, told her readers on April 23 that times are, indeed, troubling.
“Yes, we are in crisis. We have been here before. That much we all know,” Brown wrote. “What we also know, though, is that the true character of this community reveals itself daily — in every kindness, every act of generosity, every thoughtful gesture and uplifting word. Perhaps this, above all else, is what we had forgotten or neglected or taken for granted for too long. Perhaps this is the real treasure that we cast back into the water, knowing it will feed so many others. Certainly this is the community we know and love, and this is our fighting chance.”
Leonard Woolsey, publisher of The Galveston County Daily News, told readers it’s time for the entire country to focus on the needs of small business.
“When it comes to business, small is the new big,” Woolsey wrote in an editorial published April 21.
“We, as a society and fiscal support system, need to step up and give America’s small businesses a fighting chance to survive. The government owes them no less.
“Shop locally, support locally and don’t give up on Main Street, Galveston County.
“Small business is too big to fail.”
Chris Cobler, publisher of the Victoria Advocate, responded to a reader’s concerns about the paper’s decision to drop its Monday edition.
“A newspaper is only as strong as its community,” Cobler wrote April 12. “Today, Victoria and the Crossroads are suffering. Tomorrow is another day. This moment is testing our resolve like no other ... but we will rise again.
“We will have to find many different ways to do that. We will have to be smarter than ever. We will have to work together more than ever.”
Mary Henkel Judson, publisher of the Port Aransas South Jetty, wrote that no one understands small business better than the publisher of the hometown paper.
“As small-business owners, we know first-hand how tough this is,” Judson wrote April 2 in a column supporting the mayor’s decision to issue a shelter-in-place order.
“We’re among those considered ‘essential.’ That means we and our staff are working, but we don’t have the income we did before the stay-at-home declaration because some of our advertisers have pulled out. We are expected to provide the same service but without the same financial support that makes it possible for us to do our jobs. And we’re doing it.”
Mike Hodges, executive director of Texas Press Association, said TPA members have a long and impressive history of overcoming adversity.
“It’s not a surprise to see our members doing so much great work at such a tough time. TPA is a family, and this family shares a trait you could label as ‘never say die.’ It’s a strain of determination and resourcefulness that gets the job done, time after time. When push comes to shove, this trait is a wonder to behold. We’re beholding it right now, at one of the worst times our industry has ever faced.”