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Will the coronavirus pandemic hasten the death of local print newspapers?
Jerry Ceppos, Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University

At 5:30 on a typical spring morning, I'm in our front yard with a cup of coffee, inhaling the moist darkness before loading my arms with newspapers that our reliable carrier has placed against the garage door. My load was very light one day this week. The New York Times was just 48 pages. The Wall Street Journal, 30 pages. The Austin American-Statesman, 30 pages.

The reason: little advertising. Print advertising began declining 10-15% annually after the arrival of the Internet. In the 1980s, there was so much advertising that the joke was that a publisher could be simultaneously successful and brain dead. (Of course, my last publisher, Mike Laosa, was the brilliant exception.)

And then coronavirus.


In March, advertising really tanked across the nation as most businesses shuttered. We retreated into our homes, ordering online.

Is this pandemic the coup de grace for newspapers?

It could be for their print versions, depending on how long the pandemic lasts. Digital is the present and the future. The Washington Post and New York Times have made the leap successfully. The Times could prosper on digital alone. Digital revenue is flat or even declining slightly for most local newspapers.

Meanwhile, just bad news. The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald ended Saturday editions. The Austin Chronicle today published this week's edition online only, trimming back print editions from weekly to twice-a-month. The Chronicle now asks readers for donations. The Tampa Bay Times cut staff pay 10%. The Los Angeles Times is doing buyouts two years after its purchase by a billionaire.

I take no pleasure in this. The Austin American-Statesman is doing a good job on local coverage of COVID-19, and I'm glad to see that. Many of the editors and writers who are the face of the Austin American-Statesman were young staffers when I was editor. I wish them well.

The other day I swapped email with a friend, Jerry Ceppos, who was editor of the San Jose Mercury-News and dean of the Manship School of Mass Communications at Louisiana State University. Now teaching, he is an insightful thinker about newspapers.

"What concerns me about the financial impact of the virus is that it could wipe out news organizations that understand where they should have been headed—to online publication—but now won't have the time to make a transition."

Why should you care? Isn't every business or institution—including yours—poleaxed by this pandemic?

"The only people celebrating are crooked politicians, who suddenly can steal with impunity because fewer local news organizations are around to shine a light on them. One irony is that there will be more to steal because the federal money that will pour in to help end the pandemic," says Ceppos.

He's right. Congress is wrapping up work on a $2 trillion bailout. There's never been one close to that in size. Who will get that money and why?

That's where newspapers come in. If they don't earn their keep now, digital-only news sites will replace them.

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