Newspapers in New Hampshire are in a strange position with COVID-19: lots of readers, but a steep decline in revenue as businesses close in the pandemic.
Right now, in any other year, the Lakes Region would be gearing up for summer – hotels would be selling rooms, restaurants would be preparing to reopen.
Executive editor Brendan Berube of the Salmon Press weekly newspapers, based in Meredith, would be busy too.
“We would normally be pushing the resorts and everybody for ads for our summer guide,” he says. “We’ve decided to put that off a little bit.”
This year, they and everyone else are focused on coronavirus.
Berube’s papers, scattered across the Lakes Region and North Country, are hyperlocal – a lot of town and school announcements and small business stories.
The pandemic means the senior lunches and charity events they normally highlight aren’t in the paper – and neither are the ads from local businesses.
“In order for them to keep supporting us, they need to have something coming in on the other end,” Berube says.
As COVID-19 has spread across New Hampshire and the country, newspapers have taken a big hit from all the business closures.
“Frankly, you know, our business depends on life happening,” says Maggie Cassidy, the editor of the Valley News in Western New Hampshire. “And life, you know, has to slow down quite a bit for everybody's safety.”
Last week, Cassidy had to lay off three reporters due to the loss of ad revenue. The paper is cutting managers’ pay and reducing other services. Similar changes are happening at one of the Valley News’ larger sister papers, the Concord Monitor.
And yet, there’s no shortage of news to cover – or people to read it.
“The feedback that we've gotten from readers over the past three weeks is unlike anything I've ever experienced,” she says, “in terms of how grateful readers have been to have a local news source that is staying on top of this pandemic in our own backyard.”
It’s why, despite the economic strain, the Valley News and many other papers are taking down their paywalls so people can read coronavirus coverage for free.
The Portsmouth Herald and other papers in the Seacoast Media Group are doing that too.
And executive editor Howard Altschiller says they’re taking questions directly from readers to inform their coverage of public health guidance, local donation drives, new food services and virtual community meet-ups.
“People want to do something. They want to be helpful,” he says. “And we're showing people how they can do that.”
The Seacoast papers are part of Gannett, which publishes USA Today and is the largest newspaper company in the country. On Monday, Gannett said any employee who makes more than $38,000 a year will have to take a week without pay in each of the next three months.
Howard Altschiller is thinking about getting through this over the long-term – urging his staff to pace themselves. Their sales team is still trying to bring in revenue by helping local businesses advertise things like their new curbside pickup and delivery services.
“We’re focusing on this as a time to build relationships so that when we come out of this, we've worked together. We've helped their businesses,” he says.
Brendan Berube’s staff is doing that too, in the Lakes Region and further north.
He’s also focused on providing basic information about how the small towns they cover are adapting. He says their newspapers can be the best or only source of local information for residents sheltering at home.
“They're relying on us sort of more than they ever have now,” Berube says. “We're hoping that that will carry through and give us a little boost once this thing subsides and levels out – which it will.”
They’re trying to remind their audience of that by collecting stories of kindness, joy and silver linings, instead of just the fear and uncertainty that dominate the national conversation.
“We're surviving. We're still here. We're with you,” Berube says. “We will all get through this.”
At this point, Berube thinks his small newspapers can make it to summer without layoffs.