Paige Cornwell, a Seattle Times reporter, listens to a news conference outside the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington’s most centralized outbreak of the novel coronavirus, March 11 (Grant Hindsley/The New York Times)
Paige Cornwell, a Seattle Times reporter, listens to a news conference outside the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington’s most centralized outbreak of the novel coronavirus, March 11 (Grant Hindsley/The New York Times)

The Seattle reporter who has raised more than $48,000 to help furloughed and laid-off journalists around the country paid out about a quarter of the fund today.

Paige Cornwell learned about public support for coronavirus reporters at ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak. While she and her colleagues were learning how to put out a daily paper remotely, readers were cheering them on. “People would send me Venmo payments of $5 to go get coffee. I saw how even that small gesture meant so much during a crazy time.”

Then, when the economic slowdown triggered layoffs and furloughs in newsrooms across the country, Cornwell noticed journalists saying: “I think I’ll be okay, but I’m worried about rent.” So, she decided to see if there was a way to mobilize the generosity that had cheered her up with cups of coffee.

On March 31, she stood up the Journalist Furlough GoFundMe™ campaign.

In nine days, with no marketing budget and a few mentions in journalism trade publications, it attracted 170 requests for help and 600 donors, like freelance travel writer Stacey Leasca who chipped in $10.

“Even if it’s to pay your electric bill for a month, that is an enormous help to people as we try to continue to do our work,” Leasca said in a Thursday phone interview.

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In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a television reporter whose contract forbids him to be quoted by name in other media, said he donated $100 because he admires the work his colleagues are doing, especially with job cuts hanging over their heads.

Retired Kent State University journalism professor Carl Schierhorn said the news that the Cleveland Plain Dealer newsroom had been reduced to 14 journalists to cover a major American city during the pandemic was part of what motivated his $200 gift. “These are my people. I want to help them and I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to do so,” he said in a phone interview.

Poet Katha Pollitt chipped in $100 because she considers newspapers an important communication system, she said. “I can do my part in chipping in,” said Pollitt, a New Yorker who writes a regular column for “The Nation” magazine. “I’ve still got a steady paycheck, so I decided people in my industry needed help at a time when they’re doing a great service.”

Cornwell’s fundraiser started with a simple Instagram post, but the response was so strong, she decided she needed the more transparent record-keeping of GoFundMe, which helps donors be sure their money is accounted for.

By day’s end Thursday, she had sent out about $12,000 of what has come in so far, to almost 40 journalists who had sought aid. “We don’t want to make up for someone’s entire financial loss but, $100 or $200 for groceries or rent can make the difference,” she said.

So far, the Go Fund Me online fundraiser has attracted donors ranging from anonymous $10 givers to former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, who gave $2,500.

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Although Cornwell’s editor and past and present Seattle Times colleagues have donated, she is careful to point out it’s not an official Seattle Times campaign. “This is all outside my work, which I am fine with.”

Donation links for Furlough fund

Key links for the Journalist Furlough Fund

For information about the campaign to help out journalists laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, here's the link https://www.gofundme.com/f/journalist-furlough-fund If you're a furloughed or laid-off journalist, here's a link to apply for support. https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSenCseBS2TUsRoEkjRDFgEnXuQHxy83ZFtSJF9_ZHaqDSaBmg/viewform

Cornwell said reporting out about the recipients has to be vague, to avoid any chance of embarrassment.

“For many people this is a pretty delicate topic. I’ll put ‘A journalist in Arizona who was laid off and will use the money to pay for her daughter’s day care spot.’”

She has help from other journalists, but they work for Gannett and Lee Enterprises newspapers whose management might frown on the effort. “They said, ‘I don’t want my name out there because I might be fired,” Cornwell said, adding that she has faced no disapproval for working to help other journalists.