Social distancing. Stay-at-home order. Coronavirus. COVID-19.
A day doesn’t go by that most of these words don’t assault our daily lives or dominate our (mostly online) conversations.
Consequently, we’re discovering the incredible value of video calls and instant messaging for staying connected to friends and family. It offers a pretense of normalcy and reassurance we’re craving right now and lessens the times of loneliness or slows the slide into madness.
And now, many of us fully understand just how dependent we are on the daily routine of heading into work each day and interacting with our coworkers.
Isolation is our current reality, however, and your newspaper is no different from the many other businesses being hurt by the pandemic — damaged in a way that couldn’t be accomplished by the economic downturn of the 1990s and advent of the internet.
Last week, we closed our offices to the public to protect the health and welfare of our staff. We reduced the hours of some staff from 40 hours to 24. We hoped that these changes would be enough, that there would be enough advertising support to get us through this disaster.
By Monday, it became clear just how destructive the coronavirus is. While our readership for the Whidbey News-Times and the South Whidbey Record has soared as people turn to us for local information about the pandemic’s impacts, advertising has plummeted to the degree where we, and our sister newspapers across Washington state, have shifted into survival mode.
This means some major changes to our newspapers that will affect our loyal readers, island communities and staffers who have stuck with the newspaper industry through two decades of struggle and adaptation.
I’ve no doubt this makes the anti-media factions giddy, those people who I’ve always hoped would come to understand just how important a free press is to our society. At times, the vilification of reporters and newspapers has sucked the wind out of my lungs and left me questioning whether I should have moved to another line of work when newspapers across the nation first started chiseling away at their newsrooms.
For those who work for a newspaper — at least I know this to be true of all the ones I’ve worked for — we have felt a responsibility to serve our community and arm our readers with facts so they can draw their own conclusions. I see a community newspaper as a historical record, a voice of the community, an institution that helps to keep us bound together during times that threaten to tear us apart.
But we are still a business that employs professionals who deserve to be paid for their work, one that has hard costs attached to every step of the production and distribution process. Many see a newspaper as a community service that should be free. What you get for free is unvetted press releases and soft news designed to protect your sensibilities.
Starting with Saturday’s edition of the Whidbey News-Times and the South Whidbey Record, we will be producing a single, island-wide newspaper twice a week. All of our subscribers will be receiving the News-Times for the foreseeable future. It will be smaller and lighter. Our advertisers have pulled back in droves, and we’ve gone into survival mode as a business.
More staff hours are being cut, including mine. Even harder, we must furlough some of our coworkers, people who have committed themselves to the newspaper, but whom we can no longer afford to pay. This is the choice we’ve had to make to keep the newspaper on your doorstep.
We know the local news is important to you, because we see it in our growing subscription base and online readership. We crossed our fingers and prayed that this would be enough to get us through this pandemic.
Like for virtually everyone in the same boat, however, the future holds no promises or guarantees that we’ll ever recover fully.
But, as long as we can keep the presses rolling, and there’s still breath in my lungs, we’ll be working hard to keep you informed.
n Keven R. Graves is executive editor and publisher for the Whidbey News Group.