Small Town Papers Face Cuts Due to Coronavirus Impact

Virtually every sector of the economy continues to suffer from the end of business as usual due to the coronavirus. Yet even before the pandemic hit, small town newspapers across the state already faced tough times from declining ad revenue and readership. Now with their advertisers further cutting back staff and spending in the statewide shutdown, local news outlets have also implemented drastic cost-saving measures in an effort to survive the financial threat from one of the biggest stories they’ve had to cover in years.

A survey by MPR confirms dozens of weeklies and small dailies have reduced staff and services at a time when their readers arguably need  them most.

Journalists at the Adams Publishing Group recently received a memo they didn’t want to see: Two weeks into exhaustive reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, they learned their paychecks would be 25 percent smaller — because of the very pandemic they’d been covering nonstop.

Amid the state’s efforts to flatten the curve of the virus’ spread, events have been canceled, businesses are closing — and ads, a crucial piece of many news organizations’ revenue, are being pulled.

And many Minnesota papers are having to adjust. For Adams, which owns about 50 daily and weekly papers in Minnesota from the Iron Range to the state’s southern reaches, that means cutting workers’ hours to 30 a week.

It’s the same story more or less in communities all over the state. The small papers’ crunch reflects the tough spot for most businesses on Main Street throughout Minnesota.

Reed and Shelly Anfinson run three newspapers in west-central Minnesota: the Swift County Monitor-News, the Grant County Herald and the Stevens County Times. Reed Anfinson estimates more than half their papers’ advertising revenue has vanished.

“You’ve got people who are no longer in business, not advertising. You’ve got people (that are still open, but) who are being very cautious … with their money, who are advertising less. You’ve got the inserts that are gone,” he said.

They’ve also lost advertising for school and community events that have been canceled. Anfinson said they’ve laid off three people and asked all their staff to cut hours.

Even some bigger publications have scaled back, changes that were sped up by the impact of the pandemic. And increased online readership can’t make up the difference.

The Duluth News Tribune downsized the printed edition to a single-section, 12-page newspaper, dedicated mainly to local content, Monday through Saturday. It will continue to publish the regular Sunday paper.

“It’s no secret the newspaper industry has been transitioning from a print-centric business model to a digital membership model,” publisher Neal Ronquist said in the article announcing the changes. “Unfortunately, the timeline for that transformation has been radically pushed up as a result of the unprecedented economic disruption caused by COVID-19.”

In many ways, local media are like local government, closer to the people they serve than big media outlets. They serve a vital role in holding elected officials accountable and recording moments like this for future generations.