David Erickson got the call directly from the publisher of the Missoulian, the Montana newspaper where he works as a reporter writing about business and housing. You might as well hear it first so you can break the news, the publisher told him earlier in August. The newspaper building, on the riverfront in a highly coveted part of downtown Missoula, was going up for sale for $8.5 million.
Erickson and his colleagues had been working from home during the pandemic, but they hoped to return to their newsroom once it was over. The potential loss of the physical building, owned by Lee Enterprises, felt like a gut punch to an already battered local news operation.
Since 2000, the Missoulian's editorial staff has dwindled from 40 to 21 employees, similar to newspaper losses around the country. The city's local news ecosystem had already taken a hit: Lee in 2017 purchased the rival weekly, the Missoula Independent, and shut it down the next year.
"We're investigating government institutions, we're investigating politicians, we're investigating businesses, we're investigating nonprofits that exert a huge amount of control over the community," Erickson said. "For every reporter that's lost, that's one less person ... digging into important issues that affect the entire community."
Newspapers have been closing at a rapid clip, buckling under the pressure from changing news consumption habits, advertising shifts and many other factors, including consolidated corporate ownership. For outlets covering state and local news, the drop in advertising revenue since the onset of COVID-19 has only exacerbated a preexisting financial crisis. A diminishing number of them can afford daily coverage of state government.
The Tribune Company announced in August it would permanently shutter five physical newsrooms, including the Daily News in New York and the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. The newspapers will continue to publish, with reporters, editors and photographers working remotely for the foreseeable future.
Earlier in August, a federal bankruptcy judge approved the sale of the McClatchy newspaper chain to the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. McClatchy, owned by the same family since the California Gold Rush era, is the second-largest local news company in the country. Among its newspapers are the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star and the Sacramento Bee.
Another hedge fund with stakes in hundreds of U.S. newspapers, Alden Global Capital, has a reputation for slashing newspaper staffs to the bare minimum for continued operation. The staff of The Denver Post in 2018 called Alden, its corporate owner, "vulture capitalists" in an editorial calling on the company to invest more in its papers.
All the closures, asset sales, furloughs and layoffs come at a time when quality information is crucial, whether it's about the immediate health concerns of the pandemic, how local and state governments spend federal COVID-19 relief money or when schools will reopen. All are generally the kind of stories covered by local news outlets, typically newspapers.
"You've got this massive public crisis that's touching every aspect of daily life, that's hugely politicized from every angle," said Rachel Alexander, who writes about education and nonprofits for the Salem Reporter, an online publication, and serves as president of the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The professional organization gave out small grants to about 20 Oregon journalists who were laid off or furloughed, Alexander said.