- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Small-town weekly newspapers across the country are writing their own obituaries as the coronavirus pandemic shutters businesses that provide advertising revenue.

The April 1 headline of The Lake Preston Times in Lake Preston, South Dakota, read “This is It!” It was no April Fool’s joke: The paper was printing its last issue after nearly 140 years of publication.

In rural Nevada 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, the publisher of the Mesquite Local News hopes the paper, which temporarily has ceased publication, can return in late May.

“We’re trying to get as skinny as we can and tiptoe through this for the next 60 days,” said Sherman R. Frederick, owner of Battle Born Media, which publishes newspapers in California and Nevada, including the Mesquite Local News.

On Tuesday, the publisher of the Hastings Star Gazette in Hastings, Minnesota, a town of 22,000 on the St. Cross River, announced it would stop publishing after losing ad revenue during the pandemic.

“That used to be a big, fat, successful paper,” said Art Cullen, Pulitzer-Prive-winnning editor of the Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa. “Of course, the industry was getting hammered long before the coronavirus. But this just put an exclamation point on it. Ads just dried up overnight.”

Newspapers are undergoing what Jed Williams, chief strategy officer with the Local Media Association, calls an “existential moment.”

“Is this a tipping point?” Mr. Williams said. “For many, it could be. For some of them, it already is.”

Big newspaper chains, such as Gannett and Lee Enterprises, which publish daily newspapers like USA Today and St. Louis Post Dispatch, announced furloughs and pay cuts for staff because of shortfalls in advertising as businesses close as COVID-19 spreads.

In California, a publisher of alternative weekly papers in Sacramento and Chico, as well as Reno, Nevada, temporarily laid off staff and ceased printing after losing 50% of its ad revenue when restaurants, movie theaters and bars closed after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home orders last month.

But in small towns and rural counties, where newspapers print school board minutes, recipe suggestions, and sales at the local hardware store, there are real questions about the resiliency of businesses that can advertise more cheaply on Facebook or Craigslist.

“I’m really afraid that a lot of these ads that died during the coronavirus are never coming back,” Mr. Cullen said.

Studies have shown correlations between disappearing local news coverage and more documented corruption among public officials. In 2018, researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago argued that municipalities’ cost to borrow increased significantly in “news deserts,” with an absence of scrutiny skepticism among lenders.

“Right at this moment, they [newspapers] should be thought of as restaurants and theaters that are forced to close that have been forced to go dark,” said journalist James Fallows, who wrote on the economics of small towns in his 2018 book co-authored with his wife, Deborah, “Our Towns.” “There has just been an immediate ripple effect [during covid-19] on local journalism.”

Dozens of states have declared employees of news outlets as essential workers. But that’s little consolation when the publisher sheds jobs.

The $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill enacted two weeks ago will assist in shoring up payrolls for eligible media companies, assuming the checks are distributed quickly. Mr. Frederick spent Tuesday applying for relief through his bank.

“Brutal, they’re brutal decisions,” Mr. Frederick said of laying off staff. “You may have a newspaper with four people in it, and all of a sudden two of them are gone. It’s not like you didn’t know this person.”

In Mesquite, Nevada, a community of 15,000, the local casino economy drives the economy — but there’s no telling when gaming will restart and the local paper — replete with bowling league updates and messages from the mayor — can return.

It’s a similar story around the country, with many smaller papers relying on local ads for up to 80% of their operating budgets. Until businesses reopen and need to advertise, publishers say, advertisers won’t need newspapers. And then newspapers can’t cover the city council meetings or police reports that attract and inform readers.

“A friend of mine with a five-day daily in Iowa said that Hy-Vee [grocers] has stopped, at least, temporarily an $8,000 a month insert,” said Mr. Cullen, whose own paper started a GoFundMe a week ago. “That’s worth a lot of money to a lot of small newspapers.”

And without local papers, such as his own, which documented the cost of agriculture run-off on local water supplies, small-town publishers warn public trust in government may further erode.

“You just know that if the county board of supervisor knows they’ll get away with, they’ll get away with it,” Mr. Cullen said.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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