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Sitting at his desk within the small office of the Sandpoint Reader, a weekly newspaper in northern Idaho, publisher Ben Olson is exhausted.
"It's a ton of work and a ton of stress," he says.
Olson appears close to burning out, trying to keep his readers up-to-date with the latest COVID-19 news. The region has dozens of confirmed cases and, like the rest of the country, that number is growing. But at the same time, the number of reporters and staff at the Reader has shrunk – from four down to just one: Olson.
"I want to get my staff back to work because, number one, they’re like my family and I feel responsible for them," he says. "But number two – I just cannot handle this by myself."
Olson had to lay off his staff after local restaurants and bars shut down in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Those businesses often advertised events in the Sandpoint Reader's calendar. But no events mean no money.
"I realized very quickly that I would probably make one or possibly two more payroll cycles and then I would be completely bankrupt," he says.
It's a problem that's reverberating throughout the Mountain West's media landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic is deepening the cracks and fissures in a centuries-old business model, one that traditional newspapers and alternative weeklies still rely on.
There are no journalists without robust advertising dollars to pay for them, and money from subscription and circulation revenues can only go so far – they often cover less than half of a newspaper's expenses.
"This is a real disaster for media that are supported by advertising in general," says Ben Smith, a media columnist for the New York Times who recently wrote an op-ed titled "Bail Out Journalists. Let Newspaper Chains Die."
He points out that many traditional newspaper chains were on life support before the pandemic – they've been cutting costs by shutting down papers and laying off staff. COVID-19 just sped up the clock and Smith doesn't expect a happy ending.
"I think we're going to wind up with fewer journalists next year than this year, just as it has been for the past several years," he says.
But at the same time, demand for breaking news on COVID-19 is rising exponentially. Smith argues the most promising solution isn't a federal bailout for struggling traditional newspaper chains. Instead, it's turning toward a new business model – going nonprofit.
"I think there is an increasing recognition that journalism is a public service," he says. "It's a utility like water or electricity, in terms of keeping a community going and is an appropriate outlet for philanthropy."
It's a business model that has been adopted by an increasing number of news outlets across the Mountain West. Late last year, The Salt Lake Tribune became the first legacy newspaper to transform itself into a nonprofit organization. Montana Free Press embraced the nonprofit model when it launched a few years ago.
"Most of our revenue comes from members who donate to us like they would to public radio," says John S. Adams, editor-in-chief of Montana Free Press.
Currently the outlet is doing well financially, he says. They've seen skyrocketing readership and an uptick in donations during the pandemic.
"I hate to say it, but [COVID-19] has been good for business because, right now, when people are home wondering what's going on and looking for trustworthy sources of information that aren't rumors, they are turning to news organizations," he says. "I think that's good for business – as long as your business doesn't rely on advertising."
But many nonprofit organizations are also funded through grants, wealthy philanthropists and businesses. And now as the nation faces a steep economic downturn, more nonprofits will be fighting for fewer slices of pie. That's what Ben Olson, publisher of the Sandpoint Reader, worries about. It's in part why he thinks the nonprofit model isn't the answer for his paper.
"I do believe there is still a small market that operates outside of the national market where you can have community-supported papers that are robust and high quality," he says.
Olson points out that advertising revenues from local restaurants and bars were growing before the pandemic struck. His profit margins were still tight but the business model worked. Right now things are a lot tougher, but he hopes it's temporary. The $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law March 27 includes forgivable loans for small businesses to cover payroll and costs over an eight-week period.
"I know it's going to be harder to produce these papers," Olson says. "But I don't think [the paper] is going to end. I hope not."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico and with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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