Save newspapers that provide needed information

At a time when people need a dependable source of news, the newspapers that provide that news are shutting down.

Several emails in the last few weeks from those I know who work for newspapers around the country. Some report they have had pay cuts of 25 percent or more or having to take time off unpaid for three months or more.

Others say they are laid off and don’t know if they will have a job back when the Coronavirus pandemic passes and the economy begins the slow process of recovery.

While trying to cover the COVID-19 pandemic, too many newspapers now have to watch their dwindling funds. Three days ago, Jeff vonKaenel, owner of the Sacramento News & Review shut down his newspapers along with sister publications in Chico and Reno in California.

“This could be the death knell, not only for us but for the dailies that we compete with,” he told the Los Angeles Times, which itself has closed the Burbank Leader, Glendale News-Press and La Canada Valley Sun.

The loss of advertising in a shut-down economy was the final straw.

“I think I’m a pretty good salesman, but to convince businesses to buy ads for vents they are not having, well, it’s pretty tough,” Van Kaenel told the Times.

When billionaire Warren Buffet, one of the richest businessmen in the world, purchased the Media General chain, which owned daily and weekly newspapers in Virginia and throughout the South, he was hailed a “savior to local community news.”

The purchase included the Floyd Press and dailies in Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Richmond and other locations. He later bought the Roanoke Times.

Layoffs followed, including reductions at the Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Press, which lost its Sports Editor and a newsroom assistant.

Then Buffet told his investors at his Berkshire-Hathaway conglomerate that “newspapers are dead” and sold all of his news holdings to Lee Enterprises earlier this year.

Some of my friends who are home without jobs worked for Lee papers. Others worked for Gannett, which merged with Gatehouse Media to form the larges block of newspapers in the country.

Others were with McClatchy Co. papers, the second-largest newspaper group in the U.S., which filed for bankruptcy and started reducing print pages and editions.

The Tampa Bay Times, Florida’s largest newspaper, laid off 11 journalists — two of them friends of Amy and myself — and announced that it would only print on Wednesdays and Sundays for the duration of the pandemic.

Another worked for the Cleveland Plain Dealer but her job was one of 22 eliminated. The paper has outsourced layout editors and designers.

The Brookings Institute says the loss of newspapers has created “news deserts” in America. Some 57 percent of counties have confirmed coronavirus infections but have no daily newspapers to report on the problem.

Elizabeth Green, former education reporter for the now-defunct New York Sun, says too many newspapers are “largely mismanaged.” After her paper folded, she co-founded the American Journalism Project, which is working to create a nationwide network of local news outlets.

“We need to keep the values, keep the people, keep the lessons learned — and get rid of the shareholders and get a better business model,” she told New York Times media reporter Ben Smith.

The American Journalism Project is backing a new nonprofit outlet in nearby West Virginia, led by former Charleston Gazette Mail executive editor and Ken Ware, the reporter at the paper who helped uncover the damage to people’s lives by the state’s coal and gas companies.

They don’t have a name yet but one suggestion is to call it the “Mountain State Muckraker.”

“There’s all this ‘doom and gloom for local journalism stories’ that have happened in the last week or so, and I hope that other people see what we’re doing and understand that the important thing is the journalism — it’s the stories, it’s the investigations — that’s what matters,” Ward told Smith in an interview.

Smith writes:

The news business, like every business, is looking for all the help it can get in this crisis. Analysts believe that the new federal aid package will help for a time and that the industry has a strong case to make. State governments have deemed journalism an essential service to spread public health information. Reporters employed by everyone from the worthiest nonprofit group to the most cynical hedge fund-owned chain are risking their lives to get their readers solid facts on the pandemic, and are holding the government accountable for its failures. Virtually every news outlet reports that readership is at an all-time high. We all need to know, urgently, about where and how the coronavirus is affecting our cities and towns and neighborhoods.

If I were about 40 or so years younger, I’d be in West Virginia, pounding on their door and asking to join their newsroom staff.

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