The COVID-19 outbreak is taking its toll on some newspapers in New England. Already-sagging advertising revenues have dipped even more. That’s led to layoffs and other cuts.
Newspapers of New England owns several publications in western Massachusetts, including The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Greenfield Recorder, Athol Daily News and Valley Advocate. The company said advertising revenues are down 35% over the last few weeks, and April looks worse.
This week, the papers laid off 13 employees. That includes at least three sportswriters, at a time when contests at all levels have been halted.
"We're very hopeful, when all this is over, that [those employees] will be returning to work,” said Bera Dunau, a reporter for the Gazette and a leader in the paper's employee union.
In a deal with management, Dunau said, laid-off employees will get first crack if their old jobs are restored. Newspapers of New England has laid off other employees at its papers in recent years, but Dunau said this is different.
"Obviously we're heartbroken about these layoffs, while also recognizing that we are in the middle of a crisis caused by this pandemic," Dunau said. "This is a once-in-a-hundred-year storm."
That storm has had a partial upside. The publisher, Michael Moses, said that in recent weeks there's been a spike in both website traffic and digital subscriptions.
That's also the case at The Berkshire Eagle. Its president, Fred Rutberg, wrote in a column recently that new subscriptions were up more than 50% compared to before the virus. He called the response from the public “heartening.”
"I think people are aware the threat to print journalism and to journalism, in general, are real and existential, and people are supporting us," Rutberg said. "And we're very grateful for that."
But it’s not been enough to offset a sudden drop in advertising due to the coronavirus. The Eagle, which has seen a re-birth in recent years under local ownership, is making employees take staggered 40-hour furloughs to help get through the crisis.
The virus may also be a reason for freelance writers and columnists reportedly being let go at the Hartford Courant.
Former columnist Susan Campbell said she was told the move was made in order to focus on COVID-19 coverage.
Since 1986, I have written for theHartford Courant (with a small break in there after I quit and before I returned as a freelancer). Today I was told that my services as a freelancer are no longer necessary.
— Susan Campbell (@campbellsl) March 23, 2020
The paper is owned by Tribune Publishing, which is backed heavily by Alden Global, a hedge fund.
"This is, just on top of multiple layoffs that Alden and others keep implementing, that are just destroying news media's ability to do their jobs," Campbell said.
In an e-mail, the Courant's publisher, Andrew Julien, would not confirm letting go the freelancers, saying, "This has been a strategic reallocation of resource[s] to more effectively cover an era-defining story."
Two other papers are going digital-only for now, including the Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly also owned by Newspapers of New England, as well as The Montague Reporter, a small weekly.
"Even in calmer times our small, independent, non-profit newspaper runs on a razor-thin margin," read a staff note published in the paper and online.
Noting the "ongoing public health concerns," the staff said the paper will start printing paper copies again "as soon as is appropriate."