NOEL KING, HOST:
Right now, in the middle of this pandemic, Americans really want news - local and national news. But the economic fallout is threatening the existence of many news organizations. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The email arrived like an eruption, warning of further catastrophe to follow. Our paper very sadly laid off one-third of our staff, wrote Sara Rubin, editor of the Monterey County Weekly in Northern California. It publishes online, but it's an old-fashioned alternative weekly that distributes free paper copies widely. She continued, if no one else reports on the details of our shelter-in-place order, it truly feels like a dark place. Rubin told me it's been a shock.
SARA RUBIN: We try to fill all of those spaces - and, you know, from food and arts to serious news, and reporting, and opinion. And so we've had a really healthy newsroom and I think also had a really nice, thick paper, often more than 60 pages most weeks, and been doing really well.
FOLKENFLIK: Which is actually pretty unusual for a weekly newspaper. Then COVID-19 vaporized the paper's advertising and hurt it in other ways, too. Think about the places people picked up the free weekly. All the coffee shops, and restaurants, and bookstores and so on - they're shut down too.
RUBIN: The number of distribution locations available to us went down from almost 900 to about a third of that within about a 48-hour period. And we are still figuring out where we can get the paper out to people.
FOLKENFLIK: Alternative weeklies in Seattle and Portland, Ore., laid off their staff and killed the print editions, at least for now. So have those in St. Louis, Madison, Wis., and Sacramento. Next, the bloodbath extended to the mainstream media. The Gannett Company is the owner of USA Today and more than 200 other American dailies. It is now making its journalists take one unpaid week off each month. To be clear, most newspapers weren't doing well before the pandemic.
MI-AI PARRISH: They were already really fragile and limping.
FOLKENFLIK: Mi-Ai Parrish is former publisher of Gannett's Arizona Republic. She says now it's hard to see a path forward.
PARRISH: When you shut everything - and that includes your advertising - you are already injured, perhaps now fatally.
FOLKENFLIK: And this is happening at a time of intense interest in news.
PARRISH: It's interesting because it's not that people don't need us or want us, right? You know, more people than ever are coming to us who are sequestered in our homes, watching television, looking at our news feeds. And, you know, the social feeds are fed by professional journalists by and large. The problem is people aren't paying for it.
FOLKENFLIK: Or at least aren't paying news companies doing the reporting. The money basically goes instead to Internet providers and social media giants like Facebook and Google. So The Times-Picayune and Advocate, Louisiana's largest news operation, has seen readership skyrocket. The state is a hotspot for the virus. Yet the paper just furloughed a tenth of its staff and gave everyone else a four-days-a-week schedule. Florida's largest paper is down to just two print editions weekly. Several small Vermont papers closed. Governor Phil Scott, a Republican, urged Vermonters to subscribe or contribute to local news outlets.
PHIL SCOTT: Even as they're working long hours to keep us informed, many talented reporters and journalists are being let go across Vermont and the entire country. Listen. There are times I don't like the way a story comes out. But accountability and facts are so important, especially now.
FOLKENFLIK: From an even more powerful pulpit, Pope Francis offered support. Let us pray together for all who work in the media, he tweeted, who work to communicate, to inform us so that people are not so isolated and to educate children. We pray for all those who are helping us bear this time of isolation.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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