Covering how Wyoming and its citizens cope with the COVID-19 pandemic is precisely the type of service every newspaper reporter and editor I’ve ever known feels called to.

I’m no longer in a newsroom on the front lines, though, and I don’t envy how today’s journalists must do their jobs while the newspapers they work for struggle to survive.

Many daily and weekly newspapers throughout Wyoming have cut pay and hours or laid off employees in response to shrinking advertising revenues due to the pandemic. The problem will only get worse in the coming months. Ironically, the contraction is happening just as readership is skyrocketing — a trend fueled by readers’ desperate need to know what’s happening in their communities and the state. 

If there’s ever been a time when reporters need to be working overtime just to keep pace, this is it. Instead, many are being asked to cover the biggest story of their lives in no more than 30 hours a week — or, more realistically, doing whatever it takes to do the job while receiving no more than 30 hours worth of pay.

I am terribly concerned about the personal and professional impact on journalists, and on smaller, rural, family-owned publications. If they fall victim to this economic storm, their departure would leave a huge hole in their communities’ access to vital local news.

But changes to the industry are long overdue, and they may come rapidly in the wake of the pandemic. The business model of for-profit journalism is failing, and this fundamental weakness has the potential to usher in a new era of internet-based, nonprofit news organizations.

This should open up new opportunities for journalists to continue doing great work. The delivery of news no longer needs to be driven by advertising in a boom-or-bust business climate, or youthful labor to bring the product to people’s homes. 

When I started my journalism career in the mid-1970s, I thought the high demand for local news meant that newspapers would never disappear. Doesn’t everyone want to know what their city council is doing, who’s accused of breaking the law, what’s playing in movie theaters, how local sports teams are faring and who has died? 

Like many of my generation, I grew up with a love of reading newspapers and consumed their pages from front to back. I correctly surmised that I’d never get rich working for a paper, but job security seemed certain. I watched my mentors transition to retirement after spending decades in the business, and I never dreamed I’d be part of a dying breed.

I worked for nearly two decades each for Wyoming’s two largest newspapers, the Casper Star-Tribune and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. On numerous occasions based on economic challenges, newsroom budgets were stretched thin in both operations. 

During the Great Recession of 2008, the Star-Tribune laid off reporters in the home office in Casper and other cities. Salaries were frozen for several years, and those of us left had to assume the workloads of former colleagues. The company stopped contributing to employees’ 401(k) plans. Morale plummeted.

I imagine that situation pales in comparison to today’s ominous threats to newspapers.

I didn’t survive a newsroom purge in 2013 when the Star-Tribune again cut staff. While the paper was still profitable, it was not immune to the economic pressure to produce more revenue for its owner, Lee Enterprises. Lee needed the money to pay executive salaries at its home base in Iowa, to help subsidize its failing publications in other cities and, of course, to deliver returns for its investors. That’s one of the fundamental flaws of the legacy for-profit news model in general and the corporate media conglomerate approach in particular — the organization’s priorities are easily divorced from the public-service mission of good local journalism. 

Involuntarily leaving corporate journalism was personally devastating for me, especially financially. There were fewer opportunities to land a job in print journalism: Nearly 1,800 local newspapers have folded since 2004 and fewer than half of the country’s newspaper jobs from 15 years ago still exist today.

In hindsight, though, I’m better off professionally and enjoying a much less stressful life than I was seven years ago. I was fortunate to be tapped to pen this weekly opinion column as well as to work as a writer and researcher for Better Wyoming.  

Please don’t get me wrong — I want Wyoming newspapers to survive, and I hope their revenue sources return. But I’m also a realist, and I know many will find the challenges more difficult to overcome even after the COVID-19 outbreak subsides and we return to some semblance of “normal.”

There must be a new place for local journalists to land.

That is why I was intrigued by a New York Times column by Ben Smith, “Bail Out Journalists. Let Newspaper Chains Die.” He opines that while local newspapers are stuck in a deep crisis in part due to the disease, “It’s also a moment of great promise for a new generation of largely nonprofit local publications.”

Smith cites the example of the American Journalism Project, which, according to its website, wants to help build “a new public service media that is governed by, sustained by and looks like the public it serves.” WyoFile is among AJPs first ever cohort of grantee partners. The three-year, $615,000 grant is dedicated to identifying and proving out a sustainable revenue model for community-supported public-service news in Wyoming — and gleaning what lessons can be learned here for use elsewhere. 

“We need to keep the values, keep the people, keep the lessons learned – and get rid of the shareholders and get a better business model,” Elizabeth Green, AJP’s co-founder, told the columnist.

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Nonprofits have their own set of challenges, but the basic proposition is much simpler and the alignment between mission and means of support much more direct. If you feel it’s important to feed the hungry in your community, you donate to the local food bank. So too, the nonprofit news model asks for direct, tax-deductible donations from those who believe independent non-partisan reporting is critical public service. In that way, continued, reliable free access to the facts we need to make informed decisions — in some cases life-and-death decisions — is no longer dependent on shareholders’ economic outlook, the whims of an out-of-state executive team or even the health of local businesses. 

The nonprofit civic news organization approach also jettisons a lot of the expensive overhead that comes with a sprawling corporate for-profit. In short, the nonprofit model puts the fate of the news media directly in the hands of those it serves and ensures that service will be there when it’s needed most.

The central premise of Smith’s Times column is that as this new model takes root, federal government officials should reject efforts to use taxpayer funds to bail out existing newspaper corporations.

While columnists for the Washington Post and The Atlantic magazine have called for a broad “coronavirus stimulus plan” and huge government spending on public health ads, Smith contends such proposals would use federal money to pay dividends to shareholders unwise enough to invest in doomed businesses.

He’s right — it’s not the government’s role to prop up a dying industry. COVID-19 may leave many newspaper chains unable to rebound, but it will only have been the final straw, not the underlying reason for their demise. Huge printing costs, the inability to fully monetize web-based advertising and a dwindling readership base that’s literally dying off are largely to blame.

A new generation of journalists committed to informing the public about our national, state and local institutions, events and people is emerging, and the Fourth Estate will be stronger than ever. There are untold millions of stories to be told, and changing the platform that delivers them to readers should only enhance their value.

However, as a former ink-stained wretch, I would caution those beginning their news careers to be willing to adapt. Nothing lasts forever, whether it’s reading a print copy of the news or viewing it online.

I probably won’t be around to witness the next wave of innovative journalism, but I have no doubt that those who practice the craft will keep producing thought-provoking copy, however it is funded or relayed to society.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Journalism is not dead, It has morphed itself into a different form. It is now a wild and woolly art form with Facebook and Twitter and has no bounds, morals or rules. The only newspapers that have survived are the ones that publish legals for the government and receive outrages rates from cities and counties to do so. Those that have survived in Wyoming are far right-wing atrocities owned and controlled by out of state entities who brainwash our red state politicians and public. The newspapers, public and politicians are controlled by oil and gas and are anti new energy. Honest journalism like Drakes and the old timers that presented the news have to find their voice again.

    1. Wyoming newspapers, which publish Legal Advertising at rates set by the state, are honest and much better than Mr. Sather gives them credit for. By the measure of national journalism contests, they have long compared most favorably with community newspapers nationwide.

  2. I want to add a couple things to this essay , based on an excellent piece by Victor Pickard of the Annenberg School of Communication that he published in the March 12 Harvard Business Review under the headline ” Journalism’s market failure is a crisis for Democracy ”

    Kerry doesn’t speak much to a third model of journalism… the publically funded ( read : taxpayer) nonprofit news gatherers, such as NPR on the radio and online and PBS on the television side with online mirror. Under the umbrella of the quasi-governmental Corporation for Public Broadcasting I consider them essential. Except much of Congress in recent decades has tried hard to limit taxpayer funding of CPB or to the extreme of killing it altogether. Which forces NPR and PBS to beg for underwriters and corporate support in addition to contributions by individuals to get enough money to do true quality reportage.

    But there’s a huge disparity : American public funded journalism is downright paltry compared to other nations’ support of their own public channels. Regardless of the rants of Republicans and torch-carrying media bashers claiming otherwise, Congress allocates next to nothing on PBS and NPR…. a whopping $ 1. 35 per person per year. No more than one truck stop burrito’s worth. Compare and contrast that to Japan… $ 40 per capita , or the UK at $ 100 for its venerable BBC News that circles the globe. But the real power of public journalism flies the Norwegian flag at a generous $ 176.00 per capita, fully 130 times the per capita investment as America. So there is a lot of room for public funding to step up around here. ( Anybody have the figures for the Wyoming Legislature’s support of Wyoming Public Media via UW ? I do not , but I’m sure it’s not largesseful. )

    Pickard’s other main point is ominous. We simply cannot lose the Fourth Estate under any circumstances. Independent fact based journalism is as necessary to democracies as oxygen and water, and neither For Profit commercial management of the news gatherers nor agenda driven governmental funding can be trusted. Really. In fact Pickard lays out why the market for news is journalism’s destroyer, not its savior , because it went from being a public service to being brokered like soybeans or pork bellies or bundled mortgages. The smoking cannon is the fact that over 60 percent of all advertising revenue generated from online media goes to two giant companies that are not even in the news business … Google and Facebook. Follow the money . But also ask who really benefits from controlling the flow of information.

    I have long said… Nobody owns the news. Journalism done proper is not a commodity to be produced marketed and sold for profit. It’s much more important than that . The Rupert Murdochs, Ted Turners, Mark Zuckerbergs and the various Wall Street vampires and vultures should be forced to divest away from the newsrooms in the overriding public interest, forthwith . If We the People continue to allow financiers or raiders to co-opt journalism for profit and propaganda , it will be our collective doom. Journalism is the only tool we have to expose the shadowy powerbrokers who fear bright light and unblinking eyes.

    1. Are we talking about journalism or the business of producing infotainment and selling ads? They are different but intertwined. Great journalism is rare.

      The Wall Street Journal is a great newspaper. And profitable. It’s not without faults but I doubt getting rid of the corporate model would make it better. Most of the money behind great opinion & news magazines comes from corporate investments. The Atlantic is owned by Laurene Powell Jobs who is the widow of Steve Jobs. The list is long. Would a non-profit Atlantic be better? Jobs can pay for the best talents. And she has no fear of letting her editor publish opinions from all sides of an issue.

      “Congress allocates next to nothing on PBS and NPR…. a whopping $ 1. 35 per person per year. ”

      If people enjoy NPR & PBS, they can donate to it. No reason for taxpayers to underwrite the industry. The last thing America needs is another government bureaucracy which is what “journalism” will become if the government underwrites it.

      Former Chief Executive Officer of National Public Radio, Ken Stern wrote:

      “Most reporters and editors are liberal — a now-dated Pew Research Center poll found that liberals outnumber conservatives in the media by some 5 to 1, and that comports with my own anecdotal experience at National Public Radio. When you are liberal, and everyone else around you is as well, it is easy to fall into groupthink on what stories are important, what sources are legitimate and what the narrative of the day will be.”

      The media has a credibility issue and a financial problem. They are interrelated.

      “Six years ago, Bloomberg News killed an investigation into the wealth of Communist Party elites in China, fearful of repercussions by the Chinese government. The company successfully silenced the reporters involved. And it sought to keep the spouse of one of the reporters quiet, too.”

      You could spend all day pointing out the faults in journalism’s integrity and quality.

      The Fourth Estate fails us as often as the three other “estates” but it does have its place in a great nation, and up-and-coming ones. Maybe WyoFile’s can make it work after its handout runs out but I have my doubts.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful piece that represents the best in journalism by raising just as many questions as possible solutions. The move toward on-line reporting and the presence of entire newspapers on our computers represents a positive shift for those who’s lives center more and more in front of a screen, however, older generations, who have avidly read early morning, door-step delivered copy and who may have chosen to go without the wonders of the electronic revolution, are left without a traditional connection to their community. Local businesses are also, and will continue to be, key components in revenue support of local news regardless of the method of delivery. The comparison to a three-legged stool remains as appropriate as ever…..individuals, business, government….all three have a vested interest in the best local journalism can provide.