What we do to survive, and why
It seems every time I sit down to write these days, it has something to do with journalism and the state of our industry. Forgive me my obsession, but during this time of isolation it’s difficult to concentrate for long on any other topic. I am obsessed — a strong word, I know, but the truth — with steering our company through this strange, once-in-a-lifetime business disruption.
(I suspect that many business owners are suffering the same middle-of-the-night, toss-and-turn moments. I wish you all success in figuring it out.)
As most know, local and national journalism — especially traditional print newspapers and their websites — have been struggling for years. There are plenty of statistics on job and revenue losses documenting that fact. The primary reason is ad revenue moving online, where behemoths like Google and Facebook gobble up around 80 percent of that online revenue. The rest of us get to nibble on their crumbs.
Then came this pandemic, which has ravaged the industry. More layoffs and potential closings, etc. We originally cut eight full-time equivalencies and many of our freelancers. We are now undergoing a phased re-hiring of all of those people.
The other side of that coin, however, has become even more clear as we move through this pandemic: communities suffer when they lose their newspapers or some source to cover local and regional governments and community events. Participation in civic life erodes when there is no local journalism. Voter turnout decreases and the cost of government — higher taxes, more waste — are the consequence of the lack of credible news.
Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, said this: “Local newspapers are basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies.”
So how is The Smoky Mountain News navigating a course through this unprecedented disruption?
For one, we started diversifying our business 15 years ago, and that model was accelerated as the 2008 recession hit us hard. We have a couple of magazines, numerous custom publications to order, and more. That side of our business is also suffering, but it has helped though the years and will continue to do so in the future. All our eggs aren’t in one basket.
In the beginning and the end, though, our model starts with our local advertisers. We appreciate every one of the local businesses who spend their marketing dollars with us. If you’re perusing this paper or our websites or our newsletters, go out of your way to spend your hard-earned dollars with them. They need you now more than ever.
Then, there are our readers and supporters. Back in November, we started asking readers for donations to help support our business. We thought many of you who have been reading for 20 years — and who were in a position to do so — might see fit to make a contribution.
The timing of that ask was both lucky and somewhat prescient.
Five months later came the pandemic and the disruption, and the response from readers has been nothing short of overwhelming. We’ve received checks in the mail, online payments, and people walking in the door and handing us envelopes with money. It has been gratifying for our staff to realize that people think local news and this newspaper are important. Again, thank you all.
And we’re taking advantage of other avenues. We’ve received SBA money and have applied for a low-interest loan from the state Golden Leaf Rapid Recovery Fund. These monies will help us chart our way through this current crisis.
And in what is a perhaps ironic twist, we’ve received grants from Facebook. Many in the media — me included — have blamed them over the years for doing harm to local newspapers.
But when I heard they were first giving out grants for COVID-19 coverage, I took the time and applied. We were awarded $5,000 in early April.
Then Facebook announced a second round of grants, the Facebook Journalism Project COVID 19 program, aimed at helping local media outlets (profit and nonprofit, online or print) to cover the pandemic for the rest of 2020, and to take steps to improve their business model. The mission, according to the project’s website, is this: “… to strengthen the connection between journalists and the communities they serve. It also helps to address the news industry’s core business challenges.”
We were awarded a $75,000 grant that came with very specific parameters: continue pandemic coverage and upgrade our digital products. I was shocked to win, but I also felt we were deserving. And — kind of like public radio — I think we need to let readers know that we got the grant.
Trust me when I say the terms in no way ask us to compromise our coverage of Facebook or its owner Mark Zuckerberg or anything like that. Our company would not go down that path, never.
My point is that we are pursuing all these revenue streams for a very simple reason: so we can afford to continue to provide uncompromising, honest journalism for this region. Ryan Tuck is a professor at UNC and runs a statewide journalism blog called NC Local. In emails with him, this is what I said about getting the grant:
“You know, we have learned a lot about our business over the last two months, and it has reinforced the need to be nimble and quick on our feet. I want to foster a company culture that says act like a start-up, always be hungry, that nothing is sacred except survival, and it’s imperative we survive so we can produce ethical, meaningful journalism that helps this region navigate the uncertain future that lies ahead.”