With ad sales plummeting during the coronavirus outbreak, two Washington newspapers are asking readers to donate cash to prop up newsrooms as they cover the biggest news event in a generation.
Last Friday, Everett Herald Publisher Josh O’Connor sent an email to readers.
“Advertisers large and small are melting away as you read this. We will do our best, but without local advertising revenue, The Daily Herald cannot survive,” O’Connor wrote. “I cannot stress enough the peril that we are facing.”
Hard by the Canadian border, The Northern Light Co-Publisher Pat Grubb, had done the same thing a day earlier. “Given the coronavirus disaster, this business model is no longer tenable,” Grubb wrote in a letter to readers. “Businesses are closing down and advertising is melting away. Our survival is in question.”
By Monday, Grubb said, almost 140 readers of his free Blaine-based weekly had already made a contribution. “They like us, they really like us,” said the founder of the 25-year-old paper, which is mailed to every postal patron in Northern Light’s Whatcom County zip code, free of charge. Advertising sales, The Northern Light’s only revenue source, have dried up. The donations won’t close the gap, he said, but they are heartening at a time when hope’s in short supply.
In Everett, O’Connor’s appeal for reader donations was sent days before the north Sound city’s major employer, Boeing, announced it would shut down production after 35 of its 35,000 Paine Field workers tested positive and one had died of COVID-19.
O’Connor declined to provide specifics, but said his email brought in hundreds of responses on Facebook and in emails and phone calls. “Here’s the great thing about the work we do. People really do care,” he said. “Local readers and community-minded folks suggest they are willing to pledge to support our work.” He said the number of digital subscriptions spiked at the same time, but declined to provide specifics.
The Herald is owned by Sound Publishing. With more than 30 papers in Washington, Sound is the U.S. subsidiary of Black Press, the largest private newspaper company in Canada.
“I haven’t heard of anybody else doing that,” said Fred Obee, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. The group represents 80 weekly newspapers, ranging in size from 1,100 subscribers to free papers that distribute up to 25,000 copies per week. “My impression is that people are just sort of floored and they’re just now, today, starting to wake up and go, ‘All right, what am I going to do?’ It’s just in the last week that everything has just ground to a halt.”
Rowland Thompson, executive director of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said he had not heard of any other of Washington’s 18 dailies undertaking newsroom fundraising in the face of the advertising slowdown brought on by the pandemic.
Despite the owners’ bankruptcy filing in February, there’s no appeal underway at the McClatchy Company’s four Washington newspapers, said Jeanne Segal, McClatchy Director of Public Relations and Communications. She said the 29-newspaper chain, which filed for bankruptcy protection in February, cut staffing at the Texas call center that takes classified ad orders and obituary submissions, but no newsroom cuts have been made in response to the recent slowdown.
McClatchy owns the Tacoma News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and the Tri-City Herald.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story overstated the reach of Northern Light, which is mailed to every postal patron in the northwest corner of the county, not the entire county. The Seattle Times regrets the error.