Weekly newspapers hit hard by collapse of advertising during pandemic
Struggling to survive
FARGO — Cecile Wehrman is the publisher of The Journal in Crosby, a weekly newspaper in Divide County, which occupies North Dakota’s northwest corner.
But she considers herself more the steward than the owner of a newspaper that has covered the news and community milestones of this remote rural area for more than a century — a legacy she says is now in jeopardy.
Yet another measure of the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic is the shrinking of newspapers, already reeling from the loss of advertising to digital advertising rivals. Page numbers and staffing levels fall in response to the dramatic drop in advertising revenue.
As businesses tightened their belts, the ads abruptly stopped appearing, but the bills didn’t.
So Wehrman is waging an unusually public campaign to save the newspaper in this town of 1,300 six miles south of the Canadian border and 35 miles east of the Montana line. She wrote a recent column spelling out the grim math piling up on her desk. The loss of a weekly insert: subtract $600 per month. The loss of an online advertiser: subtract $150 to $200 per month. The loss of commercial printing jobs: subtract $3,000 per quarter.
“Who will advocate for you when newspapers fail?” she asked in the headline of her column. “The engine isn’t just sputtering now — it’s nearly choked,” she wrote.
In response to the loss of ad revenue, Wehrman has cut The Journal’s commentary page and neighbors page, a popular compilation of social happenings, for a combined monthly savings of $2,000.
As a result, the size of the paper, usually 10 or 12 pages, dropped to eight — a barometer of the severity of the times, Wehrman said.
“We have never printed an eight-page paper, ever,” she said. That’s considering the chronic newspaper advertising drought caused by the shift of ads to other online platforms.
“We were making it,” before the pandemic struck, Wehrman said. But, she added, “It was tight.”
She has also pleaded for grant support from the local Spirit Fund, which is funded by sales taxes, and a similar development fund in nearby Tioga, where she publishes the Tioga Tribune. The idea is for grants to support local businesses to run ads.
The use of sales taxes — generated by local business activity — to support local businesses during an unprecedented economic shutdown makes sense, she said.
Wehrman, who has worked at The Journal and assumed ownership as publisher in 2012, is conscious of the legacy that she inherited and its importance to her community.
“The newspaper really reflects the voice of the community,” she said. “It’s that identity piece that I think ultimately is the bigger issue in keeping a small community going. I just can’t imagine the possibility of that recorded history ending. You’re not going to find Crosby history on Facebook.”
Most businesses have been devastated by the abrupt economic shutdown that is an unwelcome byproduct of stringent efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Newspapers are especially vulnerable, according to publishers, because advertising budgets are one of the first investments to be cut when revenues fall.
As a result, newspapers are grappling with one of the most challenging environments ever to face the industry, according to representatives of the Minnesota Newspaper Association and North Dakota Newspaper Association.
“We’ve seen consolidation already,” said Lisa Hill, executive director of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which has almost 300 members. “I do believe we will see changes in our newspaper landscape here.”
One casualty of plummeting ad sales was the Jasper Journal, a weekly that has been published since 1888 in southwest Minnesota’s Pipestone County.
The paper had been struggling for years to serve a farming town of about 700 and a dwindling business base, said John Draper, publisher of Pipestone Publishing.
“Their businesses were just kind of drying up,” he said. “This coronavirus was the last nail in the coffin.”
Now, news about Jasper will be printed in the Pipestone County Star, Draper said, and Jasper Journal subscribers now are Star subscribers.
Gene Prim, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Barnesville Record-Review and several other weeklies, including The Hawley Herald, said the drop-off in advertising was abrupt when the coronavirus outbreak reached the area.
“We had a decent March,” he said. “But April has been pretty much non-existent as far as advertising sold. Is it a cliff? No. It’s a relatively big hill.”
To help local businesses, Prim has donated $3,000 to $4,000 in free advertising so they can remain in touch with their customers. He’s worried that some of his advertisers won’t survive.
“The barber’s not going to cut your hair twice,” Prim said. “It’s just gone money.”
He has dropped his page counts but has been able to keep his staff on. Fortunately, Prim said, he’s well established, having acquired ownership of the Barnesville weekly in 1983. “We’ll weather the storm here,” he said.
In Hillsboro, N.D., Cole and Alyssa Short publish the weekly Hillsboro Banner with Alyssa’s brother, Cory Erickson, which they bought in 2012.
The cancellation of events has had the effect of eliminating supportive advertising. The local boy’s basketball team qualified for the state tournament, an event that normally generates a flurry of “good luck” advertising and sometimes “congratulations” ads as well as the occasional special section, Cole Short said.
“All of that is at least postponed if not off the board,” he said. He’s still waiting to learn whether the community’s annual celebration, Hillsboro Days, will be held as usual in late June. “That could be potentially off the table,” Short said.
The Banner, which started publishing in 1879, making it North Dakota’s oldest weekly, hasn’t had to resort to furloughs. A recently hired sports editor is covering news, since sporting events have been cancelled.
“We’re not planning any cuts,” Short said. “We’re going to be OK.”
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are so pervasive that they factor heavily in news coverage. “Eighty percent to 90% of stories have the word coronavirus in them,” Short said. “That’s how it is these days.”
Editors and publishers often remark about the irony of their situation. They are struggling to survive financially even as the pandemic’s many tentacles have driven their readership soaring
Karen Speidel, managing editor of the weekly News-Monitor in Hankinson, N.D., said traffic on the newspaper’s website has spiked as readers hunger for news about the coronavirus.
“We have an incredible amount of people going on there and getting information,” including many nonsubscribers. The News-Monitor has unlocked online access to its coronavirus coverage, as many newspapers have done as a public service.
However, she added: “It’s not really translating into a terrific amount of extra ads coming our way. Things have changed. Things have changed tremendously.”
She’s providing her readers with lots of practical tips, including a recent piece on how to make do-it-yourself sanitary wipes, which are hard to buy in the pandemic.
“I think people recognize that we’re important,” Speidel said. She hopes readers will appreciate the role of newspapers in helping people manage during difficult times. “That’s what we’re focusing on, how this is affecting people.”
Wick Communications, which publishes the News-Monitor, Daily News in Wahpeton, N.D., and The Daily Journal in Fergus Falls, Minn., is offering a grant program to help businesses advertise, with one-to-one matches up to $10,000, Speidel said.
Despite the incentives, “We’ve made some cuts just like everyone else,” but declined to provide staffing specifics.
Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, which represents 86 newspapers, said there are many examples of how people are intensely interested in coronavirus coverage.
One example that stands out is the New Rockford Transcript’s recent story about the recovery of the first person to test positive for the coronavirus in Eddy County, which got more than 12,000 hits — which, he noted, is far more than the population of New Rockford, 1,352.
A normal story for the Transcript draws 200 hits. The coronavirus recovery story was read by readers all over the world, said Jennifer Willis, the paper’s office manager.
The North Dakota Newspaper Association has written Gov. Doug Burgum to urge state government to use newspapers in getting important messages about the coronavirus to the public.
“The best way to support newspapers is not to provide a handout, but to buy advertising,” Andrist said.
A number of bills to support the newspaper industry are pending in Congress, Hill said. Newspapers, as with other businesses, can seek assistance from the coronavirus relief legislation, and some are doing so, Andrist and Hill said.
Newspapers play a vital role in civic engagement and serving as watchdogs, Andrist and Hill said. For that reason, Andrist believes newspapers will endure despite the enormous challenges from the pandemic.
“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I think we’re going to get through this.” But, he added, “We might have a casualty or two along the way.”
Wehrman, who’s rallying support for The Journal in Crosby, got good news recently when officials in Tioga agreed to provide $10,000 for a grant proposal, and the city of Crosby has approved $5,000 for a mini-grant program.
Also, supporters have come through with donations, including $1,450 received in one day, for a total of more than $2,000 to date.
Wehrman has also found notable reader engagement success with her paper’s coronavirus coverage, including 27,000 clicks on a report of the first positive case in Divide County .
“To me that illustrates we have wide interest in what we’re doing,” she said. “We need to convert that into money.”