Pittsburgh City Paper
Pittsburgh City Paper staff group photos on Monday February 17, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Pittsburgh City Paper)

The COVID-19 pandemic has already killed dozens of local newspapers across the U.S. — and at this rate, it could register as an “extinction-level event” for many more, including some in Pittsburgh.

The ongoing cutbacks include the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which offered a buyout to 24 newsroom employees to be decided on July 3. Photographer Michael Santiago and Digital Editor Matt Moret already announced on Twitter that they plan to leave.

Pittsburgh Magazine, a former employee told me, laid off much of its staff in March, brought them back when it received the Payroll Protect Plan loan, and recently let them all go again when it ran out. That includes longtime editors Lauren Davidson, Sean Collier and Hal Klein. They can continue with the magazine on a freelance basis. Management did not respond to a request for comment.

Actually, most news outlets are experiencing losses quietly. But two in particular — Pittsburgh City Paper and Pittsburgh Current — have been vocal in asking the public for support to stay open.

Despite starting a membership campaign in March, City Paper recently announced layoffs that included Managing Editor Alex Gordon, Digital Media Manager Josh Oswald and Senior Arts Writer Amanda Waltz, along with pay cuts and a week’s unpaid vacation for some staffers who remain.

City Paper Editor in Chief Lisa Cunningham said she hopes the cuts are temporary, but rehiring employees and restoring pay will depend on how quickly other businesses reopen and start advertising again.

The membership campaign brought in 800 supporters, including 120 who donated after the layoffs were announced.

“The community response has been overwhelming and is keeping us optimistic,” Cunningham told me by email. “ … But what we need most right now to bring back our full staff the quickest, and what is most important to our long-term survival, is advertising and sponsorship dollars.”

Since the pandemic, the weekly alternative newspaper has gotten creative about making money, from selling a cookbook (with half the proceeds going to 412 Food Rescue), to a Pittsburgh coloring book  with half the proceeds going to the artists who illustrated it) and City Paper T-shirts. People can also purchase a subscription to the otherwise free weekly newspaper.

“I think we’re going to survive, I really do,” Cunningham wrote. “But how long will it take us to get back to making a profit again? When it comes down to it, we need Pittsburgh businesses to survive, bounce back and thrive too, which I believe they eventually will. But how long it will take? I honestly don’t know.”

The city’s other alternative weekly, Pittsburgh Current, has remained on the brink of extinction since Editor Charlie Deitch warned in May that it might not survive another week.

“I feel that content-wise, we’ve been at our best,” Deitch wrote by email. “Our freelance writers have been great and we’ve been able to do some really high-quality work on a half of a shoestring budget.”

The newspaper has been getting by, he told me, on grants of $5,000 each from the Facebook Journalism Project and Google News Initiative, and nearly $6,000 in donations from almost 180 supporters. It has also been selling Pittsburgh Current merchandise and soliciting help from the public.

Ninety-five percent of the money Pittsburgh Current has brought in since March has gone to content creators, Deitch said. To save money, the newspaper is giving up its Beechview offices on Sunday, July 5. The company celebrates its two-year anniversary on July 11 and hopes to announce some new survival strategies over the next 30 days.

“Every day that I wake up and look at the state of things, we could make the decision to close and I think people would understand it based on the situation,” Deitch told me. “But we don’t. We keep moving forward and doing our jobs and trying to keep people informed.”

The pandemic looks like it will be another defining moment for local journalism not only in Pittsburgh but across the U.S., according to a newly updated report from the University of North Carolina. It shows that losses that were happening before the crisis have only accelerated:

  • At least 30 newspapers closed or merged in April and May, dozens of newspapers moved to online-only and thousands of journalists have been let go;
  • At least 2,100 newspapers have closed since 2005, leaving 1,800 communities without a local news outlet;
  • More than 200 of the nation’s 3,143 counties — including Montour and Union counties in Pennsylvania — have no newspaper or local news source.

“We’re losing news,” author Penny Muse Abernathy told me. “We’re losing the newspapers, the very local newspapers that used to cover the routine school board meetings and find something of interest there, and we’re losing the reporting that was done at the state and regional level that bound us together. … It’s important to think about the loss of news as the loss of journalism.”

None of this should come as a surprise, especially not to Pittsburghers. Nearly three-quarters of Americans told the Pew Research Center before the pandemic that they think local news outlets are doing all right financially — and only 14 percent are paying anything for news.

If the crisis has done anything, Abernathy said she hopes it has made the public more aware of the challenges newspapers face.

“One of the things that I think has been beneficial about the coronavirus is it has gotten people to understand when you lose local news, you lose something very, very important,” Abernathy said. “That is the ability to get the information to just make everyday decisions that can affect the quality of your life today as well as into the future.”

She has one piece of advice for anyone who appreciates local news and does not want to see it go away: “If you can afford it, buy a subscription. That’s the simplest thing you can do.”

Comings & Goings

Photographer Michael Santiago, who announced on Twitter that he is leaving the Post-Gazette, talked with the newspaper at his alma mater, Syracuse University, about his frustrations since management removed him and reporter Alexis Johnson from covering the Black Lives Matter movement.

Santiago also offered this advice for student journalists of color who sense that something is wrong at their workplace or school: “Don’t stay silent. Protect one another and also just work hard. Unfortunately, that phrase (about how) we (journalists of color) have to be twice as good as our counterparts unfortunately is true in this business.”

The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com

Andrew Conte

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments.