Fredric Rutberg in his office at the Berkshire Eagle
News organizations throughout Vermont are scrambling to cover the spread of coronavirus — even as the outbreak threatens to put them out of business.
The public health crisis has forced newspapers to publish remotely and broadcasters to go live with skeleton crews. Many Vermont news outlets have expanded coverage, dropped paywalls and launched coronavirus-focused email newsletters. All appear focused on how the scare has affected their readers, listeners and viewers.
"This shows why every community needs a small-town newspaper," said Steve Pappas, publisher of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. "When these kinds of things happen, we prove how indispensable we are."
According to several newsroom leaders, the economic shock of the outbreak has already led to drastic reductions in advertising revenue — accelerating a trend that has threatened the industry for two decades. Newspapers, which have been hit hardest by that decline, have begun cutting costs.
In a memo to employees on Tuesday, the publisher of three southern Vermont newspapers — the Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal — wrote that all full-time staff members would be furloughed for one of the next five weeks. He encouraged his employees to file for unemployment during that period.
"Simply put, our advertising sales have taken a severe hit which we expect to continue until there is a return to something approaching normal life in our communities," wrote the publisher, Fredric Rutberg.
His company, New England Newspapers, which also publishes the Pittsfield, Mass.-based Berkshire Eagle, could lose $500,000 in ad revenue if the pandemic lasts through May, Rutberg estimated. "These losses are more than the company can withstand, but we are confident that they are temporary," he wrote.
The papers also plan to reduce their page counts and use of freelance columnists. Rutberg wrote that he and his fellow owners are "making an additional cash investment into the company to help maintain our financial strength during these uncertain times." In a statement to Seven Days, he said that readers and staffers have supported the moves "as they understand it is necessary to keep our company strong."
Several other Vermont newspapers have also trimmed their print editions to save money, including the Herald, Times Argus, Valley News and Seven Days.
"It's self-evident looking at our pages, and of course businesses have less to advertise, canceling shows, events, temporarily closing, etc.," said Valley News editor Maggie Cassidy. Her paper has suspended two part-time production staffers, frozen freelance spending and opted to keep an open newsroom job vacant.
The state's directives to close restaurants for in-person dining and to limit gatherings of more than 50 people have hit news organizations such as Seven Days particularly hard, according to publisher and cofounder Paula Routly. "Thirty percent of our advertising comes from events and restaurants and different ways that people gather. We create community," she said. "Those advertisers have just dropped off overnight."
Other advertisers have been "incredibly supportive," Routly added, opting to run messages of hope and encouragement. "I can feel that people are wanting to support us as best they can, but to lose that amount of revenue is a shock," she said.
NiemanLab’s Joshua Benton wrote Thursday that alternative weekly newspapers like Seven Days have been particularly hard hit by the crisis. He listed layoffs at more than a dozen such papers around the country.
“This has, without a doubt, been the single worst week in the history of America’s alternative press,” Benton wrote. “They’re facing a double blow: Not only have their main advertising sources dried up, so have their main points of distribution. (Where do you pick up an alt-weekly? At a bar, at a restaurant, at a theater — all the places that have gone dark.)”
Seven Days has sought to make up for the loss in revenue by promoting its Super Reader program, which allows community members to make one-time or recurring contributions. Several staffers have also volunteered to take temporary pay cuts, Routly said. And the paper has launched a new directory of Vermont restaurants offering takeout, delivery and curbside pickup.
"These are very important businesses to us. We write about them. They advertise with us. And this seemed like the best way to support them and help get the word out," Routly said of the directory, called "Good To-Go."
According to Vermont Public Radio president Scott Finn, it's "too soon to know" how the outbreak will affect his station's finances. The statewide nonprofit indefinitely postponed its spring pledge drive and has been contacting members and underwriters to seek their support. "We're in the same boat as everyone else," Finn said.
Meanwhile, VPR has doubled down on its news programming. Its flagship call-in show, "Vermont Edition," now runs for two hours daily — 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 9 a.m. and noon on Friday — rather than for one hour. It has added hourly local newscasts in the midmorning and midafternoon so that listeners can catch Vermont news from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"Now is not the time to be concerned about what it costs," Finn said. "We just need to do what we need to do, and we have faith that the community will come through for us in the end."
The extra time will allow "Vermont Edition" to experiment with new formats and occasionally offer a respite from coronavirus news — in the form of live music, author interviews and other lighter fare. "People don't want two solid hours of the hardest issue in their lives," Finn said. "So we're trying to intersperse some levity and fun into it all."
These changes are being implemented remotely to protect staffers from the spread of coronavirus. Of the station's 60 full-time employees — 50 of whom typically work out of its Colchester headquarters — only seven or eight are physically present at any given time: hosts, producers and technical staff. If the situation deteriorates further, Finn said, he believes VPR could operate without a soul in the building.
WCAX-TV is also moving to what general manager Jay Barton calls "low-people mode." By the end of the week, he hopes to have no more than seven of the station's roughly 70 employees working out of its South Burlington headquarters at a time.
Reporters are used to working in the field, but now they will have to produce all their stories on station-issued laptops. Hosts who remain in the building are keeping their distance on-set. "Somebody's gotta be there in person," Barton said.
The CBS affiliate has seen ad cancellations, but the station "has not been in crisis mode yet" and has not contemplated cutting staff, Barton said. "This is not the time to overreact to short-term problems."
Throughout the state, newsroom leaders are trying to be creative and figure out what their audience is seeking. Following the lead of the Washington Post and New Hampshire Public Radio, the Valley News created an online survey for general readers and health care workers to share tips and recommend approaches to coverage. So far, according to Cassidy, 80 people have responded.
"We know this is an overwhelming time and wanted to make sure we understood how we could be of service to readers," she said. "We've talked to and written about some people who wrote in, and other people have given us leads to run down."
In the pages of the Herald and Times Argus, Pappas is hoping to feature poetry and kids' art projects. Some advertisers have agreed to sponsor puzzles for kids and adults alike. "We're putting a lot of scary stuff out there, so we're also trying to make people feel good," he said.
At the same time, news reporters are focused on producing the best journalism they can. "It's all hands on deck," Routly said. "There's just a ton to report, and I hope we're rising to the occasion."
Said Addison County Independent publisher Angelo Lynn, "We're working harder than ever to keep our readers informed about what's going on locally, and how the state and federal actions impact us." This story, he said, "has moved incredibly fast and has dominated our pages."