Layoffs, print reductions hit newsrooms after virus halts events and decreases ad revenue

At a time when the public needs information more than ever, the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus is having a major impact on Oregon's newsrooms.

News outlets across the state have been hit by dropping ad sales, as a result of business closures and event cancellations, as people stay at home to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The hard financial reality comes as more readers than ever before are turning to local news outlets for news on the pandemic.

According to The Oregonian, readership of the daily newspaper has risen 50 percent since the first Oregon coronavirus patient was named Feb. 28.

Readership of the Portland Tribune has more than doubled in that same time period. Across all of Pamplin Media Group papers, the Newberg Graphic's parent company, readership online is up 70 percent.

But with many news organizations already teetering on the edge, the lost revenue has meant big impacts, despite growing readership.

Last week, the Portland Mercury announced it would temporarily halt its print product, laying off 10 staff members, after the state announced limits on gatherings of 250 people or more. That announcement meant canceled concerts and theater shows, and what seemed like the overnight elimination of all sporting events.

Mercury Publisher William Steve Humphrey said the alternative paper's stream of revenue "has virtually disappeared overnight — largely because our primary advertising base caters directly to the act of 'gathering,' whether it be music venues, theaters, restaurants, bars or shops."

Willamette Week also announced March 13 that it would halve its print production — from 50,000 to 25,000 newspapers, "as readers are less likely to pick up the paper in bars or venues, and more likely to read it online at home."

The outlet published a 32-page paper this week.

The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash., announced it too had laid off three newsroom employees on March 16. Employees at the newspaper had recently launched efforts to unionize.

Pamplin Media Group, publisher of 25 community newspapers, notified all employees on March 17 of a reduction in the full-time work-week to 32 hours, citing a sharp drop in print advertising revenue.

The pandemic has also brought an unusual level of camaraderie in the often cuthroat world of local journalism.

The Oregonian announced earlier this month that it would join more than 20 other media outlets in the state — including Pamplin Media Group — in order to share stories and resources about the pandemic.

"Coronavirus will strain even the largest newsrooms as news breaks continuously and into the nights and weekends," Oregonian editor Therese Bottomly wrote in an editorial on March 14. "The collaboration will allow newsrooms to pick up good information from other sources, so they will not need to re-report the same story. We can cover more angles this way."

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