More News, But Fewer Reporters: Local Papers Lay Off Or Furlough Staff

Jul 2, 2020

Local newspapers have felt the sting of the economic downturn.  Many have been furloughing and even laying off staff, including reporters.   WMRA’s Mike Tripp has the story.

For culture reporter Erin O’Hare, it seemed a day like any other at Charlottesville’s C-ville Weekly.  Staff had just finished sending the publication to press just hours before.

Erin O'Hare worked as a culture reporter for the C-ville Weekly before she was laid off. She's photographed here in front of a mural at IX Art Park in Charlottesville.
Credit Mike Tripp

ERIN O’HARE:  A little before 3 o’clock on Tuesday, June 9th, I got a call from our publisher basically telling me I was being let go. And as I was on the phone with her, I started getting a bunch of text messages asking … “What is going over there?  What’s happening? Are you ok?” … So as I’m getting let go, I’m seeing the news of who else is being let go through text message because it’s already on Twitter.

How did she take the news?

O’HARE: I kind of blacked out during that conversation. I don’t remember much of it because I was so shocked and so upset. And then I pretty much just cried the rest of the afternoon. I loved that job.

With the loss of her position came another reality --- the financial fallout.

O’HARE: They left me in a really bad spot with three days severance.

She wasn’t alone.

O’HARE:  It was myself, then Laura Longhine and Bill LeSueur … creative director. They laid off a bunch of folks on the advertising side as well.

How does this change things?

O’HARE: Editorial staff had 8 people making a weekly paper and working on special publications and now there are five.

In a Twitter post dated June 10, the C-ville Weekly said that it was a tough decision, and it wasn’t the first time the publication had to cut staff during a recession.  Even with a smaller staff, the publication tweeted that “We remain committed to bringing you the very best local, independent journalism.”

As with most small, local news outlets, the C-ville Weekly is prone to cutbacks during economic downturns mainly because the main source of revenue – local advertisers – dries up.

O’HARE: I knew that our ad revenue was down because of the pandemic. I knew that we were hurting.

Katherine Knott has a similar story.

Katherine Knott works as an education reporter with the Daily Progress in Charlottesville. She also serves as union chair with the Blue Ridge NewsGuild.
Credit Katherine Knott

KATHERINE KNOTT: I’m an education reporter at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville.

Her publication, like many others, was forced to furlough employees.

KNOTT:  Means you are taking an unpaid week off from work. You can’t check your email. You’re not checking your phone calls. You’re barred from working. I view it as being benched.

A furloughed employee can file for unemployment.

Pete DeLea, a reporter for the Daily News Record in Harrisonburg, said he couldn’t speak on record for this story, but he’s been outspoken on social media about the furloughs there.  In a recent tweet, he called out the publishers’ unwillingness to “dip into their savings for you, but you should dip into yours for them.”  Knott, of the Daily Progress, says the furloughs hurt morale.

KNOTT: I mean, it’s certainly been demoralizing in a lot of ways because we’d all rather be out covering the many news and news crises happening right now.

Brad Jenkins serves as internship coordinator for JMU's School of Media Arts and Design, and he's also general manager of The Breeze, JMU's weekly student newspaper.
Credit Brad Jenkins

BRAD JENKINS: I mean on the one hand, I completely understand that news organizations are businesses and have to meet the bottom line.

Brad Jenkins serves as internship coordinator for James Madison University’s School of Media Arts and Design, and he’s also general manager of The Breeze, JMU’s weekly student newspaper.  He’s also a former reporter and editor of the Daily News-Record.

JENKINS: I understand that they’re trying to find was to find ways to save on cost, and obviously personnel is going to be one of your biggest costs. It is discouraging in a time when we need the media maybe more than ever as we’re facing a pandemic and racial unrest and economic crisis. We need an independent media to give us the information that we need about those things.

Gannett, which owns the News Leader in Staunton, seems to agree. Maribel Wadsworth, Gannett’s president of news and the publisher of USA Today, stated in a recent memo that beginning July 6, reporters for the company’s papers, including USA Today, will be exempted from furloughs. It also said, “We must bring our reporting firepower back to full strength as we juggle the enormity of three major events — the pandemic, the fight for social justice and the looming election."

But reporters at the News Leader have already faced furloughs this year.

JENKINS: I guess if I were a reporter, yeah, I’d rather be furloughed for a couple weeks than completely laid off and not have a job at all.

Now enter something new at the Daily Progress --- a union. … The Blue Ridge NewsGuild.

KNOTT: We essentially formed in October to have a voice at the table so that we could have some sort of say in the decisions that were gonna happen.

Katherine Knott says the union also recognizes it’s a difficult time for newspapers. But they also feel journalism has never been more important.

KNOTT: Our belief is that local news is stronger when companies invest in its workforce.

Some of them have also joined together to create the Virginia is for Journalists Relief Fund.

KNOTT: We launched the relief fund in early April. We’ve raised nearly $25,000 dollars.

So far, the fund has helped 19 journalists responding to requests for help with rent, grocery bills, cell phone bills, utilities …

KNOTT: It’s journalists helping journalists. And we have assistance, and we’re more than willing to help more people.

Despite repeated emails, publisher Peter Yates of the Daily Progress did not respond to requests for an interview. And publisher Craig Bartoldson of the Daily News-Record, which is owned by Ogden Newspapers based in West Virginia, chose not to speak on the record for this story.

Note: Before becoming a freelance journalist, Mike Tripp himself underwent furloughs as a staff photographer at Gannett’s News Leader in Staunton, where he was finally laid off in January 2019.