It didn’t take Les Zaitz long to get a little uncomfortable and stop asking for donations to keep his weekly newspaper afloat during the pandemic.
“I honestly in good conscience couldn’t ask people to donate a hundred dollars to us when I knew that the Vale Food Bank was running out of funds to buy produce to feed hungry families,” said the editor and publisher of a muckraking weekly in Eastern Oregon. The online donation link is still live on the Malheur Enterprise website, but Zaitz quit promoting it, even though he believes credible local news is a primary need during a national emergency like this.
Zaitz’ unease is replicated nationwide as the pandemic economic freeze has forced newspapers — in trouble long before the coronavirus outbreak — to abandon their crusty independence and ask readers for money. More than 1,800 papers went out of business since 2004. The survivors, losing clients to inexpensive and targeted ads on Craigslist, Google and Facebook, cut their newsroom staffs by half in the last 12 years, according to the Pew Research Center.
Long a key partner of local charities, spotlighting problems that need fixing and providing free or cut-rate advertising to charitable groups, newspapers now find themselves the charity case.
That role-change was hard enough. But how do you raise money for your newspaper’s needs during a pandemic that has claimed the lives of at least 100,000 Americans and driven unemployment to record highs?
The Seattle Times raised eyebrows a decade ago when it started seeking grants to maintain a newsroom of more than 150 journalists. That money directly funds coverage of public education, traffic, homelessness and other topics, with strict rules. Readers are shown where the money came from and donors don’t get to veto or order stories.
Zaitz knows all that and hasn’t been shy about asking for help. Before the crisis, he raised $5,000 in reader donations to finance a battle to drag Malheur County public records into the sunlight.
In April, he was one of the first publishers in the country to try the The Local Media Association’s COVID-19 Local News Fund, a web platform created to keep small newsrooms afloat during the economic freeze with tax-deductible online donations.
He raised $3,000 the first week. At the time, Zaitz said he wanted to be careful not to drown out other fundraising, but he was unapologetic about the importance of the Enterprise’s coronavirus coverage. Malheur County residents needed free access to timely information, he said, to find services and to protect themselves from the contagion. But a month later, with many neighbors unemployed and running out of savings, he “turned down the dimmer.”
If he operated in a bigger or richer town, he would have kept raising money for his paper. But Zaitz said he won’t compete for money from the few folks among Malheur County’s 31,000 residents who are able and inclined to help the needy.
Nationwide, local papers have collected $1.4 million from 15,000 donors since the Local Media Association launched its platform, said Matt DeRienzo, a former newspaper executive who helps publishers set up their Local Media Association donation sites. Scruples like Zaitz’s are not uncommon. “They’re used to being the megaphone for everyone else, not for themselves,” DeRienzo said. “Part of this whole campaign has been getting people to understand that it’s OK to ask for help for yourself.”
The standard journalism ethics code emphasizes independence, forbids favor-trading and calls on journalists to place the public interest above their own.
Those traditions and the unfilled needs in Bellingham gave Julie Shirley pause when she started soliciting donations for Bellingham’s daily paper. She’s editor and general manager of The Bellingham Herald. Like Zaitz, she said the need for information ranks right up there with other critical needs during the pandemic.
The paper raised almost $30,000 by May 27. Shirley said she has been “blown away” by $500 donations and said donors’ comments are perhaps the most important boost to staff morale at a paper whose owner is in bankruptcy. The McClatchy Company owns four dailies in Washington and holds a minority interest in The Seattle Times Company. “As much as the money is really good and necessary, the comments are what made me cry.”
Publisher Pat Grubb of The Northern Light, a rural weekly in Blaine, Washington, said it’s a fine line. Lots of people are hurting, but he says donations have allowed the Northern Light to tell readers what stores and services are open in his shoreline corner of Whatcom County. And to boost the local recovery when lockdowns are lifted, the readers’ help and federal Paycheck Protection Program funds will allow him to offer half-price ads to local businesses.
Encouragement from readers willing to send extra contributions has put wind in the sails of Sound Publishing, said President Josh O’Connor. The owner of The (Everett) Herald and more than 40 community publications in Washington, Sound has raised more than $160,000 from local fans and O’Connor said it has confirmed how important local journalism is in the towns Sound serves.
Publishers and editors have eased their conscience about this year’s fund drives several ways, DeRienzo said. Some, like the Henrico Citizen in Virginia, let donors select a nonprofit to receive a free ad. Others pair their fund drive with an appeal for donations to a local food bank or other social service charity.
Regardless of the approach, DeRienzo said he expects publishers like Zaitz will look back on this as a time that cemented reader loyalty. “Even though they’re giving and he’s receiving, they are more attached to him than ever,” he said.