Updated at 8:02 p.m. ET
Tribune Publishing, the parent company of local news outlets across the country from the Chicago Tribune to The Baltimore Sun, is closing the physical offices of five newspapers permanently.
Journalists from the affected newsrooms — the Daily News in New York, the Capital Gazette and the Carroll County Times in Maryland, the Allentown Morning Call in Pennsylvania and the Orlando Sentinel in Florida — will continue working remotely for at least the remainder of the year, the company said.
The affected newspapers have not suspended print operations. Journalists working for these papers will, in some cases, plan on sharing office space with other newspapers once the pandemic subsides.
"Out of an abundance of caution we do not anticipate having employees that can work remotely coming back into the office for the remainder of the year and into 2021," Tribune Publishing said. "With no clear path forward in terms of returning to work, and as the company evaluates its real estate needs in light of health and economic conditions brought about by the pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to permanently close these offices."
The Chesapeake News Guild, which represents employees at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, and the Carroll County Times, tweeted on Wednesday:
"We've been working from home for months, and it's been fine as a stopgap measure, but we never thought it would be permanent. Newsrooms are people, not buildings, it's true. But having a physical space where we can all gather, collaborate, debate, create, joke, yell at each other makes our coverage so much better...We're devastated & we don't know what to say other than please help us."
The closures arrive as the coronavirus pandemic, and the social distancing considerations that came with it, have moved most newsroom employees across the country out of conventional offices.
There has been a surge in media consumption as people check newspapers and websites and turn on their radios and televisions to stay on top of the latest news during the pandemic. But newspapers and other outlets are losing advertising revenue and are contending with ongoing forces driving down the sustainability of local news, including a shift to reliance on national sources and a decline in print subscriptions.
More than 50 local newsrooms have closed since the start of the pandemic in the United States — many of them the only news source in their community, according to the Poynter Institute. Many managers and owners of news sources across the country have attempted to deal with the loss of revenue through furloughs, salary cuts and other measures rather than outright layoffs and closures. But several news sources have laid off staff or closed offices.
A UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media report shows that "news deserts" — areas of the country that aren't served by a single local news source — have rapidly expanded in the last 15 years. It concludes that "since 2004, the United States has lost one-fourth — 2,100 — of its newspapers," and that "more than 200 of the nation's 3,143 counties and equivalents now have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues."
In response to the Orlando Sentinel newsroom closing, the Sentinel Guild tweeted on Thursday: "This building has been @orlandosentinel's home since 1951 and now we're leaving, thanks to @tribpub — which has $80.5 million in cash btw. We're still a newsroom, even if we don't have a home, but this is why we need local owners who care about journalism."
The unions linked to a petition calling for the newspapers to be turned into locally owned nonprofits.
Chicago's flagship newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, is remaining for now in its owner Tribune Publishing's downtown headquarters, though Tribune Publishing is in talks with the space's owner for a buyout of its lease.
Tribune Publishing did close an office for three of the Tribune's suburban affiliates, the Naperville Sun, the Beacon-News and the Courier-News, serving the suburban communities to the southwest of the city. Employees of the three newspapers got an email on Wednesday from the company telling they would no longer have an Aurora office as of Aug. 28. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why this office wasn't included in its acknowledgments of five other office closures nationwide.
"It's better that they cut costs with buildings and not people because we're already a thin staff of reporters and editors," said Erin Hegarty, a reporter for the Naperville Sun. Hegarty is a member of the Chicago Tribune Guild, the same union that represents employees of the Chicago Tribune. "But one issue the union has is the idea that Tribune Publishing needs to be cutting costs in the first place. We know the company has money, we just aren't seeing it come through to us."
Tribune Publishing reported that its revenues fell to $183.1 million in the second quarter from $250.3 million a year earlier, and its net income from continuing operations dropped to $1.6 million from $5.3 million. Digital-only subscribers increased about 40% to 419,000 in the latest quarter from a year earlier.
Reporters for the three Chicago suburban newspapers had mostly been working remotely, Hegarty said. However, she said having a physical office was an intangible benefit in gaining community members' trust and allowing reporters to better serve the areas they covered.
"And if you have a newsroom, you can learn from your colleagues, you can listen to someone do a great phone interview, you can get up and ask someone a question quickly. There's a lot of learning and observing that goes on there," Hegarty said.
Journalists at the Capital Gazette will have an especially hard time leaving their newsroom. After a gunman targeted their previous office in a shooting that killed five of its employees in June 2018, the paper's staff spent a year in a temporary space provided by the University of Maryland before finally moving into a new, permanent location.
"It felt like we were going to have the opportunity to grow and heal," said Danielle Ohl, a Gazette reporter. "We put up photos and memorials for our colleagues, we hung up the flags that flew over the Capitol and D.C. after the shooting. It really felt like a place where we could do good work, collaborate and also remember our friends. Now, we don't have a centralized place for any of that."
Ohl, who also represents the Gazette as the Chesapeake News Guild's chair, doesn't expect Tribune Publishing to invest in a new physical newsroom after the pandemic. She thinks the journalists she knows will keep doing excellent work, but "if more newsrooms are making this decision, they need to think really hard about what they are giving up. ... It is much more difficult to do the kind of collaborative work that produces solid journalism when you're not together, and it sends a terrible message to our communities that we don't think that a physical presence there is necessary."
Many of the Gazette's reporters live in Baltimore, rather than Annapolis, due to high rents. Ohl argues that losing a physical newsroom would mean many journalists no longer have a foot in the ground in the community they serve. "For local newsrooms it really is important to be in the community. You just miss stuff if you're not," she said.
The Orlando Sentinel reported on Wednesday that, in a June 8 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Tribune Publishing said the company had withheld April, May and June rent payments for "a majority of its facilities and requested rent relief from the lessors in various forms, including rent abatement, lease restructuring or lease terminations."