Though governments large and small have declared local news essential to fighting the pandemic, federal subsidies have so far been denied to large publishing companies that serve dozens of cities and towns in Washington.
That could affect the amount of local news available to at least 580,000 Washingtonians, just counting those who live in the city limits, though all of these papers serve the larger region surrounding their hometowns.
Owned by companies with more than 1,000 employees, newspapers in Tacoma, Bremerton, Everett, Olympia, Bellingham and the Tri-Cities were ineligible for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans, a small business subsidy included in the first round of economic stimulus legislation. The loans are attractive because the government will not collect repayment (“forgive” the loan, in finance parlance) if companies don’t cut staff or cut pay during the eight-week term of the loan.
Meanwhile, companies like The Seattle Times Co., which also owns the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Walla Walla Bulletin, landed a $9.9 million PPP loan. PPP loans are keeping journalists employed at The Inlander in Spokane and at small-town weeklies like The Northern Light in Blaine and Methow Valley News in Winthrop. The Seattle Times has not furloughed or cut staff during the pandemic-driven economic freeze.
The Kitsap Sun in Bremerton is owned by Gannett Company, the largest newspaper company in the U.S., which was not eligible for PPP loans. About half the newsroom staff were on temporary furlough in April, an editor there said.
The national spokesperson for The McClatchy Company, which owns The Tacoma News Tribune, The Olympian, the Tri City Herald and The Bellingham Herald, said the company’s bankruptcy filing prohibited the company from seeking “PPP” loans. But both the Bellingham and Tacoma papers have taken advantage of the COVID-19 Local News Fund, a reader-donation system set up by the Local Media Association, said Jeanne Segal, McClatchy’s director of public relations.
By Tuesday, The Bellingham Herald had raised $29,025, and the News Tribune had raised $26,610.
Whether Sound Publishing, the owner of The (Everett) Herald in Everett and 42 other Washington newspapers, is eligible for PPP funds is unclear.
Sound’s president, Josh O’Connor, said in an interview last week that the company successfully applied but won’t use the funds until it finds out if its loan will be forgiven. He has since declined to comment.
Sound has had two rounds of layoffs, which might disqualify it from loan forgiveness unless it hires back those employees. Plus, it is part of a chain of papers in California, Alaska and Hawaii, which may make it bigger than the 1,000-employee limit. Further, is a subsidiary of one of Canada’s biggest newspaper chains, Black Press Media, Ltd., although O’Connor said that did not disqualify Sound from applying, since the subsidiary is a U.S. corporation.
In Spokane, the alternate weekly Pacific Northwest Inlander laid off eight of its 36 employees in late March, including two journalists. But publisher Ted S. McGregor Jr. announced to readers April 24 that he landed a $436,500 PPP loan, and he’s back up to full staff. In a column, he said the government won’t dictate what the paper covers, but that transparency demands he inform readers of the loan.
Spokane’s daily, the Spokesman-Review, did not land a PPP loan in the first round, but after Congress and President Donald Trump refilled the program with $310 billion, The Review landed $2.4 million. Cutting costs in response to the advertising shrinkage, the paper recently canceled Saturday print publication for the first time in 125 years.
At The Northern Light, a weekly in Blaine, co-publisher Pat Grubb said his PPP loan is well under $100,000 and will cover eight weeks’ salary for his small staff.
On a roll, Grubb also went online and applied for Facebook and Google grants for local newsrooms covering the COVID-19 pandemic. And he was one of 752 Whatcom County applicants for emergency grants from the State of Washington Department of Commerce. He’s still hoping to land $10,000 from that source.
At the same time, Grubb asked readers for donations to keep The Northern Light shining, and 600 people have added to the fund.
In Winthrop, Methow Valley News Publisher Don Nelson said his weekly landed a PPP loan that will help him keep paying two reporters and a bevy of paid freelancers, who with him write and photograph the entire contents of the community weekly, from sports to calendars to school-board coverage.
Vancouver Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell said his daily and business acquaintances in town are finding the application process chaotic. “We have been working with two banks, and as of today we have no stimulus dollars and have not been successful in getting a loan despite working hard on the application process,” Campbell wrote in response to an email query.
Preparing for Congress to go back to work on stimulus legislation, lobbyists for two trade associations, The News Media Alliance and America’s Newspapers, have published position papers calling for a new round of grants to keep journalists at work in cities like Tacoma and other others shut out of the first round.