A Time magazine article posted online Jan. 22 was brief — just over 1,000 words — yet packed with mostly grim facts on the state of local journalism across America: "1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 didn't have one at the end of 2019." This trend continued after the pandemic hit last year. More than 60 local newsrooms shuttered completely and many of those that didn't suffered deep budget cuts. (Find the story here, www.time.com/5932520/covid-19-local-news.)
Among those interviewed for the Time story was the Journal's own news editor Thadeus Greenson, explaining our brief but spectacular editorial budget cuts before we began to rebuild. Compared to the two other rural newspapers featured — the Monitor-News in Swift County, Minnesota and the Leader in Covington, Tennessee — the Journal was in better financial shape going into the pandemic. But after adjusting revenue projections for the year, by April the Journal editorial staff was cut from five full-time staff to one full time and one part time. (There were layoffs and furloughs in other departments earlier. We also reduced circulation and printed far fewer pages than normal each week.) The editorial furloughs began April 1 and lasted one pay period, until we were approved for a CARES Act Payroll Protection Program loan. Staffing immediately returned to three full-time equivalents (FTEs). And by August, the staff was back to 4.5 FTEs, where it remains today.
As a small business, we were certainly luckier than most. I am particularly grateful for our entire staff during this past, difficult year. What was not mentioned in the article was the fact that the editorial team was in the middle of an expansion of sorts when this hit. Last year, Kimberly Wear stepped in as digital editor and helped greatly increase our online presence. We also launched the newsletter that hits your mailbox at about 6:13 every morning — all without a staffing increase.
General Manager Melissa Sanderson was busy, too. She completely revised the 2020 budget in March and then did it again in April — and September and probably November. In the meantime, she and her team, including Sales Manager Kyle Windham, developed new revenue sources since we had lost pretty much all advertising from restaurants and entertainment venues, plus the entire hospitality/tourism industry. (By the way, we are delaying the reboot of our popular Humboldt Insider quarterly magazine until we bust out of this pandemic, hopefully soon. Other magazines are also postponed.)
When Melissa heard the twice-a-month classified paper called Trader was no longer publishing, we hired a few extra part timers, launched the new North Coast Trader and expanded coverage to five counties in Northern California and Southern Oregon.
The Time article linked to three of a number of significant stories we were able to publish last year after the pandemic hit. The first, by Kimberly, was about all the local businesses and organizations that received PPP loans, including ours (www.northcoastjournal.com/NewsBlog/archives/2020/07/07/millions-in-ppp-loans-flow-into-humboldt). The other two by Thadeus were in-depth articles on food insecurity (www.northcoastjournal.com/NewsBlog/archives/2020/04/13/a-real-surge-food-insecurity-intensifies-as-covid-19-job-losses-increase) and the expansion of internet services to the Yurok Tribe (www.northcoastjournal.com/humboldt/yurok-connected/Content?oid=18317551).
That last story is worth mentioning again because it was funded by a unique partnership the Journal developed last year with the Humboldt Area Foundation, called Community Voices Coalition. (Thanks again, sales team.) The Journal receives ongoing grant funding from HAF to cover otherwise under-reported communities. These additional funds significantly increase our ability to fund local journalism while retaining editorial control of content. CVC project stories, written by our staff or freelancers, are shared simultaneously with all local media, including the Times-Standard and Lost Coast Outpost without charge.
The obvious question posed by the Time article is how will we fund local journalism in the future. The answer is we don't know, but likely it will be a combination of sources. Advertising is still our largest source of revenue. Some news organizations are becoming nonprofits or turning to foundations like HAF to support local journalism. Another new source for us last year was a twist on subscriptions through our NCJ membership program. Readers become members and "subscribe" by donating $15, $25 or $50 a month and most donate their subscriptions back to increase our free, communitywide distribution. Like supporting the Food Bank, an NPR or PBS station, the Journal is now being supported directly by monthly contributions from readers even though we are not a nonprofit. (If you're not currently a member, please consider it. You can find more information here, www.ncjshop.com/support#fIDqnx.)
Hopefully, grants and member subscriptions will continue to grow as a percentage of revenue in the future as advertising continues to shrink. Maybe creating a sturdy, three-legged stool will be the answer to funding local journalism.
Judy Hodgson (she/her) is the Journal's publisher and co-owner. Reach her at [email protected].