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COVID-19 Kicking Journalism When It's Down

 April 21, 2020 at 11:11 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 The coven. 19 pandemic is undoubtedly one of the most important and most covered news stories of our time, but it also may be killing local journalism, although interest in news updates, press conferences and reporting on the viruses way up, advertising revenue that fuels newspapers, magazines and broadcasting is way down businesses along with entertainment and sports events that are shut down are not spending their precious resources on ads and the consequences are hurting big and small news organizations across the nation and here in San Diego. Joining me are Matt hall editorial and opinion director for the San Diego union Tribune and Matt, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. Maureen. Also joining us is Randy DOE Tinga. He is free, a freelance contributor to the voice of San Diego and Randy, welcome. Speaker 2: 00:52 It's great to be here Speaker 1: 00:54 Matt. It's not as it print journalism was having no problems before the pandemic, but where the major newspapers such as the UT coming up with strategies to change with changing times. Speaker 2: 01:05 Yeah, I mean I think we, we look, the tumbled in the industry is nothing new. It's been going on for a decade. There are far fewer journalists in there where I think the newsrooms in America had been cut in half since the great recession in 2008. But this clearly has changed, uh, everything. Basically we're, we're, we're flying a crashing airplane, uh, and, and, and trying to, the landed into a field here. Speaker 1: 01:27 How has the paper been affected by the covert 19 pandemic airplane hasn't crashed, Speaker 2: 01:32 so that's good. We're actually doing really well. I mean, there's no question that, uh, like many newspapers and like many news outlets, our advertising, our print advertising is, is really falling, but our readership is higher than it's ever been. We've already hit our digital subscription goals for the [inaudible] calendar year and that's when you talk about strategies that we've been adopting to, uh, kind of survive in, in the, in this dangerous time of the last few years. Uh, that's the focus is digital subscriptions. We've realized that like many places, kind of like the KPBS model, like the voice of San Diego model, that members, supporters getting people to read newspapers because they want to feel like they're part of the community. That's really been the strategy going forward. And so those numbers are, are up. And I think that's reassuring. People want to know what's happening. They want to have a trusted news source at a difficult, dangerous time like this where they don't know. You know what it's like in the outdoor world. We're all supposed to be staying at home and most people are, except for essential workers and some protesters with a, with a bone to pick. Speaker 1: 02:31 Now we heard about buyouts and layoffs at the UT and add the LA times or were they already planned? Speaker 2: 02:39 Yeah, though. So to be clear, we haven't had any layoffs. The buyouts were, uh, in the works before this. So the buyouts have nothing to do with, uh, the coronavirus crisis. What has happened at both the LA times and the San Diego union Tribune as a result of the downturn in the economy because of the state home orders is that there have been executives, senior executives who have taken pay cuts. There have been people on the business side who have taking furloughs and then all employees at the UT Speaker 3: 03:11 have lost their 401k match through the year. So those are the three steps, Speaker 2: 03:16 uh, affecting staff at this point that our institution has implemented. And, and you know, we'll see what happens going forward. As you pointed out at the outset, you know, a lot of advertising revenue for newspapers has to do with events, with sports, with beer festivals, with San Diego was amazing theater. I mean, there's Speaker 3: 03:33 all of these things that we are used to Speaker 2: 03:36 and used to doing that aren't happening now. And so those organizations are struggling and we are kind of seeing the effect of that. Speaker 1: 03:44 Now, Randy, in your article in voice of San Diego about the hit that news outlets are taking, you write about the smaller alternative weeklies in San Diego, like the reader and the San Diego city beat. How are they doing Speaker 3: 03:58 there? Willy have been hit the worst, uh, of all the local media outlets. And that's because they [inaudible] rely so much on entertainment, uh, advertising and the reader and city beat are full of, of ads for concerts and for arts events and we just aren't having any concerts or arts events and all and a San Diego city beat, uh, it has actually disappeared. It's not being printed at the moment there. And what we hear, we're waiting until this is all over. And then the reader has lost about half of its pages at least compared to just a few weeks ago before all this. And the last time I checked with them, they had cut the pay of their staff in half and they were asking readers for donations. And the only reason that the reader is still around right now is because they have quite a lot of, uh, advertising from marijuana dispensaries. And if you read the weekly print edition of the breeder, you'll see that those ants are basically what it's keeping it afloat. Speaker 1: 05:02 And your article on R and D also noted the decline in local magazines. So how has the decline in advertising affected San Diego magazine and San Diego home and garden, Speaker 3: 05:13 they, uh, have really been devastated. And also San Diego magazine, uh, which has an upscale audience. Their pages are full of ads for plastic surgery and spas and divorce lawyer is and things like that. And those, a lot of those businesses are not, uh, in business right now. So San Diego magazine has actually gone on hiatus. They planned the return. They have basically, uh, laid off their staff and aren't publishing. And there was another magazine called San Diego home and garden that's been around for decades. And they also serve an upscale audience and they have shut down entirely and it's not clear if they'll be able to come back at all. Speaker 1: 05:54 So it's not clear if city beat or San Diego or San Diego home and garden are going to resume even after the state reopens and the city reopens, is that what you're saying? Speaker 3: 06:05 Well, I think that depends on each one. San Diego magazine seems definite to return. Uh, city beats seems a little inferior to me. There. They've been undergoing a lot of transition. They used to be a respected paper in terms of journalism and did a lot of investigative journalism just a few years ago. And now they've become basically an entertainment, a weekly paper. So I'm saying their survival is a [inaudible] is a little more precarious. And then I, the San Diego home and garden may never return. The owner has said that he's, he doesn't know how they'll return or if don't return. So I think San Diego magazine will come back if the economy returns. And then the other two city beat and sending home and garden are quite a lot more iffy. And I think the reader will return once we get events and entertainment back online. Speaker 1: 06:56 Now, Matt, there are some cities that now have no newspapers at all. What's the impact of that kind of loss on a region? I mean, it's huge. It's devastating. Speaker 2: 07:07 Uh, news deserts are nothing new. There are big pockets of the country, uh, that don't, I have kind of a, a good, uh, newspaper serving them or, uh, a new site serving them. But I think that, uh, you're starting to see, I just saw some, uh, news alerts today that says, um, there are smaller, uh, web outlets that are going to open, that are going to focus, you know, if it's just five people, there's one in Colorado I saw that's going to start using some money from Google. Uh, and open would just five journalists trying to do local news. I mean, local news is that's how you find out what's happening in your community, whether it's during a pandemic or whether it's at a planning meeting. Uh, and so I think that there's a, uh, a need for that. But I think the New York times said just last week that 33,000 journalists have been either laid off furloughed or had their pay cut since the start of the pandemic. So that's just in what, five or six weeks. I mean, that's just the devastating. Speaker 1: 08:04 Now, Randy, when it comes to broadcasting, you spoke with KPBS general manager, Tom Carlo, about the contradiction that many news outlets are seeing this increase in audience, but a decrease in revenue can tell us about that. Speaker 3: 08:19 Yeah, he said that, uh, web traffic is up more than 300%. Uh, that means people who are going to the Cape with PBS, PBS website to read news coverage and KPBS now provides a local news coverage seven days a week. And at the same time they're seeing a reduction in underwriting and membership support. And so is NPR news came out from NPR this week? That being are also experiencing that or shortfall and are reducing the pay of their executives. Okay. So Tom Carlo, the general manager, it can be as told me that they may be able to get some money from the [inaudible] federal and pandemic bail out package, which has funds for public broadcasting. But there are challenges, you know, he's, you said, uh, uh, they have postponed I think at least two or three pledge drives because of the pandemic coverage and earlier because of the impeachment and the impeachment trial coverage. Speaker 1: 09:20 What about local commercial TV news, Randy? Speaker 3: 09:22 They are also struggling. Uh, and TV news across the board is, uh, they're getting fewer commercials from local advertisers. I mean, cause a lot of local advertisers aren't in business right now. And, and I didn't hear that K USI has had to cut some positions and uh, so the, and also you look at somebody like, uh, NBC seven San Diego. Okay. This summer they would have had a huge bounty from the summer Olympics, which will be well, which was supposed to be aired by NBC and they won't be able to get that benefit. Speaker 1: 09:59 Randy, how is voice of San Diego doing? Speaker 3: 10:02 Yeah, they seem to be doing pretty well. We, uh, we just had a pledge drive that was successful and we're like KPBS that we rely on on donors and it seems that, that we are doing okay, but also we're a [inaudible], you know, a fairly small operation compared to a lot of the other media in town, so that, uh, that may may make it a little easier for us to survive this. Speaker 1: 10:26 So Matt, do you see that as the future, uh, donors and subscriptions for journalism instead of just selling newspapers? I think it's one future. I think Speaker 3: 10:36 that print isn't going to be around for very much longer. Whether that's years or a decade, who knows? I mean, um, you're starting to see some papers now. That's one of the costs, cutting measures that they've undertaken. The Tampa Bay times, which is a really well known, well established newspaper cut back to two days a week. Um, my hometown paper, the Gloucester daily times and Massachusetts scaled back to five days a week. So they are no longer going to deliver, uh, on two days. That's happening now. That's a real way to save money. Obviously our print readers love the paper they love getting in the morning. We've gotten a bunch of letters from people saying [inaudible] that in these topsy turvy upside down times, yes, going out to their driveway to pick up the paper every morning gives them a sense of normalcy. So that's not going to go away for us anytime soon. But I think as an industry, those are some real discussions they're going to take place and within a decade, if not much sooner, it's going to look totally different than the ease with which you can deliver news digitally, um, is something that is just a way forward for the industry. Now, whether [inaudible] the solution is just electronic, uh, advertising or subscriptions, that's a whole other story because so much of the revenue for the industry is tied up in print advertising, as we all know. And so I think Speaker 1: 11:53 we have to figure out what the future looks like. But one future, you can clearly envision that digital subscriptions, uh, is the way forward. Well, we're not really appreciate both of you talking to us about this. I've been speaking with Matt hall, with the San Diego union Tribune and Randy [inaudible] with the voice of San Diego. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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Mainstream news media, already suffering from declining revenues as readers, viewers and listeners have migrated to mostly free digital sites, COVID-19 has choked off much of the advertising that remained. At the same time interest in the news has soared and numbers are climbing.
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