City Weekly and other smaller newsgathering operations hit hard as advertising craters amid COVID-19

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The City Weekly owner and publisher John Saltas stands in an empty newsroom, April 1, 2020. Most of Saltas' 12 staffers are working remotely from home amid the coronavirus social distancing protocols. Saltas instituted furloughs on his staff March 27, and estimates the editorial staff is about half of what it was at its peak. The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on many small news-gathering organizations, such as alt-weeklies and free community newspapers.

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When a Salt Lake County public health order was issued on March 16 prohibiting mass gatherings of more than 50 people and halting sit-down service at all restaurants and bars in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kathy Mueller saw the writing on the wall.

For starters, the edict would put her two bartender sons out of work. Beyond that, she thought immediately of the economic devastation that social-distancing mandates would wreak upon the businesses of her myriad friends and associates in the hospitality and service industries.

The trickle-down effect, though, she knew would reach her. After all, as a senior account executive for Salt Lake City Weekly, the award-winning alternative newspaper, she was only too aware that almost every bit of her employer’s revenue was tied to advertising and branded events from restaurants, bars, arthouses, concert halls and clubs.

And it was less of a trickle and more of a near-instantaneous tidal wave.

“Events, arts, and the eating and drinking culture, that’s the lifeblood of City Weekly,” Mueller said. “… It was phone call after email after text of people [saying], ‘We can’t run, we’re pulling out.’ It just kind of opened the floodgates. … After St. Patrick’s Day, it was just a desolate landscape for us at City Weekly.”

John Saltas, who founded City Weekly as “Private Eye” back in 1984, put the impact in equally stark terms.

“Most of our revenue, 95%, is hospitality-driven,” he said. “Restaurants, clubs, events, our own events, our own magazines, all of that stopped overnight.”

And the effects for him and his Copperfield Publishing parent company have been predictably dire. Their annual “City Guide” — their second-largest project each year — has been shelved indefinitely. Same for their outdoor recreation product, “Vamoose.” The “Best of Utah Body & Mind” publication will go online only, as will their foodie magazine, “Devour.” They are “publishing a skeleton issue of City Weekly each week,” Saltas said, “which, it’s 32 pages this week — we haven’t done that [few pages] since the early ’90s.”

Saltas said that what was looking to be the company’s most profitable quarter of the past four or five years wound up instead with him having to institute furloughs this past Friday. He estimates the present editorial staff to be half of what it was at its peak.

“I don’t usually think in worst-case scenarios. I plan for ’em, I guess you could say, and I dread them, and I sweat at night, and I don’t sleep, and I worry about our staff, and I worry about the people in our community who we’ve helped. It’s a tremendous burden, frankly,” Saltas said.

“But I don’t think of it that way,” he added. “To me, the worst-case scenario is letting people down. It’s not about, ‘Is there a paper?’ We’ve got an incredibly loyal community with us. And we have a passionate community of people who care throughout the ranks and include all walks of life, political parties, economic strata. And so for all of the joshing and stuff we do, you know, that’s a 35-year legacy. So, first, I don’t want to see a single person hurt. But this is unavoidable.”

Spreading statewide

While City Weekly has been particularly hard hit, given the sector their finances rely on, they’re hardly alone. Many of the smaller newsgathering operations around the state are now having to deal with the ramifications of social distancing and businesses closing, to varying degrees.

The City Journals collective (formerly known as Valley Journals, and in existence since 1991) has been 100% sustained by advertising, and has “seen a sizable decrease,” according to creative director Bryan Scott. It produces small, community-oriented, direct-mail newspapers in Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Holladay, Midvale, Millcreek, Murray, Sandy, South Jordan, South Salt Lake, “South Valley,” Sugar House, Taylorsville, West Jordan and West Valley City.

While he hopes to keep his staff largely intact, “we anticipate that there will be some reduction in force,” he said. Meanwhile, everyone there is already feeling the effects.

“Our model around here is that everybody’s going to get a scar,” Scott said. “… We’ve furloughed, we’ve cut hours, we’ve got people out on sick pay — you name it. I think we have about 20 employees coming into this. I think we’ll come out of it with about 20 employees. But each one of them will have a different experience going through this. … It’s across the board. It’s going to be, everybody feels the pain.”

Bill Boyle, editor and publisher of the weekly San Juan Record in Monticello, said he went into 2020 with big plans to retool San Juan County’s only newspaper. He rolled out a new print design, purchased a local radio station, and launched a redesigned website.

Then the virus hit. Ad revenue started to dry up in mid-March just as local news became critical for keeping the public informed of local developments.

“We’re being crunched from both directions,” Boyle said. “There’s never been more of a need for news ... but the available space for news is shrinking dramatically.”

The size of the paper is driven by advertising revenue, Boyle explained, and he’s had to make painful cuts in order to make it work financially. “We have a 12-page paper today, and we have at least 20 pages’ worth of news,” he said.

Scottie Draper, the news manager and director of advertising for ETV News, which bought out the Sun Price Advocate and Emery Country Progress in 2018 and is now the only print newspaper in Carbon and Emery counties, said there will be no layoffs or furloughs among her staff of four full-timers, thanks to financial backing from owners Emery Telecom. There is nevertheless some belt-tightening taking place, owing to lingering uncertainty in the community.

As some advertisers have pulled out, she said, ETV News has scaled back the size of its print product. They’ve also cut back on their freelance contract work, especially hiring photographers, on account of there being fewer community events and zero prep sports.

“We’ve had some health orders from our local health department; a lot of things are shut down like movie theaters, gyms, things like that; and then a lot of things have soft closures, like our restaurants and government organizations. And so advertisers are kind of wary,” Draper said.

“We do have some that pulled pretty quickly after those public health orders went in place. And it’s been a bit of a struggle because this is when we usually start to really pick up on a lot of our advertising,” Draper said. “We have a lot of special sections and offers and things like that that start going in April and then all through the summer. So it’s going to be interesting to see how long this is going to impact us for.”

The Richfield Reaper, in existence since 1888, has not seen too much deleterious impact yet, according to editor David Anderson. Mostly, it’s been a case of adjusting advertising plans: “Kind of what we’re focusing on is, ‘OK, you’re a restaurant; you can’t serve people in the dining room. What can you do?’ And that’s kind of what we’re targeting our advertising more towards, is letting people know what businesses can still offer even if their facilities shut down.”

There has been one advertising downturn, however.

“We have seen some inserts get pulled out because, I suspect, grocery stores don’t know if they’re going to have the supply chain available to them that have a circular,” Anderson said. “One of the staples of a local paper is the inserts in it. People get the paper to find out what’s on sale, and that’s what they base the shopping list on. Some of that has gone away, temporarily.”

Some new paths

Given that some of these newspapers find themselves hoping to bolster diminished revenue streams, while others are desperately attempting to stem full-on economic hemorrhages, many are trying out new strategies to engage the public.

Both City Weekly and The City Journals are finally seeking to take advantage of long-held and little-used nonprofit status by soliciting donations from the public.

Saltas made an impassioned plea last week in a video shared on social media, noting that City Weekly had actually set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arm about four years ago, but that, “like the bumbling fools we are, we didn’t know how to do it properly. But it’s been there, and now we’re activating it.”

Indeed, the PressBackers.com donation website benefiting Copperfield Publishing’s properties has been in existence for several years, but never generated much traffic or revenue. However, Saltas said, between the video making the rounds, and the public’s increased knowledge of newspapers soliciting donations owing to The Salt Lake Tribune’s own newfound nonprofit status, that is starting to change bit by bit.

“It’s certainly not enough to retire us or make us wealthy, or even sustain us very long, but it’s growing,” he said. “… The truth is, [City Weekly] was never really free to the people who picked it up. And now they are learning that, you know, maybe five bucks a month or a hundred bucks a year, 20 bucks, whatever their heart will give, it’s paying for something that’s really, really vital here.”

The City Journals likewise obtained nonprofit status several years ago, and likewise never did a ton with it, said Scott. In recent days, the City Journals’ primary and subsidiary websites all had a pop-up ad appearing, asking for financial help. That ad is now embedded on each site’s home page.

“Thank you for reading! Like many local businesses, the City Journals are in need of your support at this difficult time,” it reads. “If you are in a position to help support our efforts to continue delivering important local community news, please consider making a donation by clicking here. Thank you.” The “reader donations” page it links to has options for one-time or recurring donations of $5, $10, $15 or “other.”

Scott said The City Journals have received a few small donations thus far — “nothing that’s going to change our landscape at all” — but he is hopeful that public awareness will help bolster the coffers a bit.

“This whole thing has made us see … that it’s bad to have all your eggs in one basket,” he added.

As for the Reaper, they too are looking for the general public to fork over some cash — but, as always, only the exact amount it costs to buy a Wednesday paper. Their recent focus, Anderson explained with a laugh, has been more about finding ways to keep that tradition going in a time when people are told to stay home as much as possible.

“We’ve implemented a honk-and-serve thing. A lot of people in our area, they look forward to Wednesday, when the Reaper comes out, and so they come to our office and buy a paper,” he said. “So one of the things we’ve done is, we say, ‘If you pull up and honk, we’ll bring it out to you, so you don’t have to get out of your car.’ And we have somebody who’s sanitizing their hands before they go out, and then when they come back in they’re washing their hands every time. And your poor hands are going to be chapped by the end of the day, but it’s just one of those things that we’re doing to try and help with this whole social isolation thing.”

City Weekly’s Mueller, meanwhile, is in her third week of working from home. After having worked for Saltas for 17 years, she’s simply trying to hold on to any shred of normalcy and routine she can find: “I’m still getting up, getting in the shower, maybe not putting on dress clothes. However, I’m really trying to stay with that schedule.”

Her client list is much smaller these days, so she’s making it a point to give them some TLC. After all, these aren’t just monetary transactions to her — they are symbiotic relationships that have grown over the years.

She noted that the closure of popular Irish pub Piper Down “really just hurt my heart,” not only because owner Dave Morris had ordered 180 pounds of corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day festivities that would never happen, but also the side effect of the wait staff missing out on the huge tips they were counting on from what is the restaurant’s biggest business day every year.

She then brought up Tim Smith of Ogden’s Own Distillery, and how their business acquaintanceship had evolved from him telling her at their first meeting years ago that he was on such a razor-thin budget that he couldn’t even afford a quarter-page ad, to Ogden’s Own becoming now being one of the biggest advertisers in City Weekly, Devour and Vamoose.

“To know all these people on a very personal level and watch them grow up and thrive … I mean, it’s devastating to watch this happen to them,” she said. “… I’m rooting for our local guys. And I know that they are an incredibly resilient bunch of people. They’re resourceful and tenacious.”

She feels the same way about City Weekly. Working in the newspaper industry for as long as she has, Mueller’s become fairly accustomed to catastrophe and calamity at this point, though admittedly not like this. Still, having made it through myriad rough patches before, she’s hanging onto some hope that City Weekly and its business partners can endure this new wave crashing down on them.

“We are so small-business-centric that we absolutely understand where our clients are coming from. There’s nothing but empathy for the situations that these folks are in,” she said. “And I think that from our perspective, being in the newspaper business … we’ve continued to ride out the storm somehow. You know, come hell or high water, we keep doing it.”

Reporter Zak Podmore contributed to this story.