You might think journalists laid off or cut to half-time hours because of the COVID-19 pandemic would be overjoyed to learn a federal economic stimulus loan would allow them to get their full-time jobs back.
But, while the news business is no different than any other hit by pandemic-driven layoffs and furloughs, 2020’s crisis comes on the heels of 12 years in which newsrooms nationwide shed more than half their staff members.
It makes sense, then, that when the news staff of Spokane’s alternative weekly got the good news about hire-backs on April 9, the Zoom videoconference screen of 10 faces looked a bit glum, just like it had two weeks before when The Inlander laid off staff.
“Honestly, most of us were stone-faced,” staff writer Samantha Wohlfeil said. “I was surprised that I had so little reaction. It was almost a similar vibe to that (layoffs) Zoom call, which was weird.”
Between the two meetings, Publisher Ted McGregor had hustled to land one of the first Payroll Protection Program loans for a Washington news company: $436,500 to cover personnel costs for eight weeks.
“ ‘Gosh you guys,’ ” Wohlfeil remembers Editor Jacob H. Fries saying. “ ‘I thought there’d be Champagne popping.’ ”
There was no cheer, and Fries says one of his team explained it to him like this: “It feels like we just got a stay of execution or a delay.”
“We’re definitely thankful, it’s just that there’s a lot of whiplash,” Wohlfeil said of getting back to full-time pay. “It’s mentally exhausting.”
Layoffs have defined her career, thus far.
She landed a full-time job at The Bellingham Herald upon graduating from Western Washington University in June of 2014. On her first day, the Herald laid off two people and kept shrinking the newsroom for the rest of her three years there.
Even in that context, The Inlander’s bad-news Zoom meeting March 27 was a rough one. Fries had laid off copy editor Quinn Welsch and staff writer Josh Kelety the day before, which the newsroom text-message network had spread around. But there was another surprise. Fries had to cut the remaining news staff to half-time. On Zoom, they divvied up the workload, and Fries told them to use paid hours to start their underemployment claims with the Washington Economic Security Department.
Wohlfeil found it hard to work only 20 hours a week as she wrote a cover article about privacy and stories about cannabis for the issue the week of April 20. Now she and her peers are all back at work, but the eight-week PPP loan hangs a big question mark over June.
Local publishers are strapped because they still rely on local advertising, which was already shrinking and has now vanished while the economy is frozen.
Using a mix of data, The New York Times estimates 36,000 news-industry workers have been laid off or furloughed or had their pay cut since the pandemic struck, and analysts have been generally pessimistic about ad revenues returning to last year’s levels.
There is good news. Journalism’s audience has never been bigger than it has been these last two months. The need for truth-grounded reporting on how to stay healthy and solvent has never been more urgent.
But, while the moving-picture business flourished by distracting Americans during the Great Depression, and foreign carmakers grabbed market share during the 1973 oil embargo, the local news business is set up to serve, not profit, during this crisis.
And at a time when demand for reliable information about life-and-death decisions is great, newsrooms like The Inlander’s, which do their best work when reporters build up local knowledge and sources, have been destabilized.
Facing uncertainty, Welsch and Kelety did not renew the leases on their Spokane apartments and left Spokane. For now, they’re back at work for The Inlander, but Welsch landed 1,300 miles south in San Diego, where his girlfriend is starting a stable-seeming job as a medical resident. Kelety is 370 miles west at his parents’ home in Port Townsend.
Far-flung staff members are not ideal, editor Fries said, but they would be working remotely by phone and laptop anyway, so it will do, for now. Unfortunately for The Inlander, Kelety went job hunting while he was unemployed and found a new reporting job in a new city that he can’t talk about until it is official. Fries said he won’t be able to hire a replacement.
Wohlfeil loves The Inlander and her work there, but watching the struggle, she says, “It does feel like this is just one more step in the slow march.”