It was St. Patrick’s Day, my sister’s birthday, and, as a result of the simmering COVID-19 crisis, my dad and I had just regretfully canceled plans for all of us to visit my grandmother on Long Island to celebrate the occasion.
Life was about to dramatically change, I realized, and Examiner Media was facing an existential crisis as we endeavored to publish community news in the epicenter of a historic storm while already grappling with industry hurdles.
A part of me, for a fleeting moment, was oddly enticed by the idea of allowing the impending tidal wave to wash over my nearly 13-year-old business, and return to a more lucrative, less stressful career as a professional writer. But then a weight of responsibility overcame the passing daydream, and I quickly realized I owed it to our employees, our advertisers and, well, to you, our readers to navigate the choppy waters, or die as a business trying.
So, over the last two months, I’ve committed myself to an almost moment-to-moment search for business solutions, exploring every nook and cranny for avenues to survive and eventually thrive. After all, the local media market is shrinking, and readers across two counties were counting on us to deliver reliable and trusted local journalism during a public health crisis. Embracing the gargantuan challenge was the only responsible option.
I’m pleased to report, 68 arduous but rewarding days later, we’re alive and well. But let me address the bad news first.
Part of restructuring our business on the fly (which started on the morning of Mar. 18) was laying off the majority of our staff. Each of these people were critical members of our team – loyal, talented, hardworking reporters, editors, photographers, sportswriters, columnists, graphic designers and distributors. Initially, I hoped we’d be able to bring everyone back in the mid-future, if not the immediate future. (I’ve learned to largely avoid forecasting or planning for the distant future).
But, as the weeks have gone on, I discovered we were able to execute high-quality, local journalism with a different approach. The current advertising market eliminates the possibility of rehiring the entire staff, so we’ve developed a new strategy that allows us to prepare professionally-reported local news with fewer full-timers. Moving forward, we’ll be increasingly reliant on freelance journalists to complement the work of our incredible core editorial staff, as we also aim to restore some currently unoccupied yet eventually necessary full- and part-time time positions.
Even as we share more content between our four print editions, we remain committed to hyperlocal news in your community, not just the regional news we’ve been forced to focus on amidst this life-altering pandemic.
Also, the ever-changing nature of virus-related breaking news propelled us to publish more and more to our digital platforms, turning TheExaminerNews.com into a daily online newspaper and forcing us, more broadly, to develop an innovative digital strategy for our website, our social media and our e-mail blasts while also enhancing the strength of our print products through superior editorial planning.
After the brutally painful layoffs, I knew I had to identify new revenue streams, because cuts alone would not sustain our ability to fund the critical reporting duties that lie ahead.
And that’s when the magic started to percolate.
I applied and we won $5,000 from Facebook in late March to finance our early COVID-19 reporting. Next, in early April, I partnered with a Michigan-based nonprofit, the Local Media Association, to provide readers with an opportunity to donate to our virus coverage through tax-deductible contributions. In about six weeks, we raised more than $30,000 from about 400 donors, almost all contributions in the $25 to $100 range. And I’m proud to announce Google just awarded us $7,000 to support our journalism.
Through continued advertising support from local businesses and organizations operating during this period, augmented by the fundraising and grants, we’ve achieved a strong cash position coupled with a new, leaner and stronger business model.
And here’s the thing: I’m not naturally inclined to share all of this internal news, and am doing so for a reason. In fact, to borrow an industry cliché, I’ve sort of buried the lead but allow me a few more sentences to explain.
I’m writing this column, in part, to let you know we’re okay. Your generosity has blown me away and it’s been humbling to read all of the incredibly warm comments on our donation page. For the first month of our Examiner – COVID-19 Local News Fund, we were staring down the barrel of a gun, and the business was in very real jeopardy.
That is no longer the case. I want to be sure everyone understands we’ve regained our footing. More to the point, and here’s the buried lead – I want to be certain no one donates under the incorrect belief we remain in financial crisis.
As of this week, with the Google funding, we’re whole and then some. But here’s the but – we must not grow complacent in an industry that was already imperiled by vanishing ad revenues. In fact, the business we operated before the virus missed the mark in neglecting to diversify revenue streams.
Our print newspaper can be picked up by readers for free. Our website can be accessed by readers for free. Our e-mail blast can be subscribed to by readers for free. But publishing quality community journalism is expensive, and we need to continue to evolve.
The truth is, as of this writing, I’m unsure of precisely how that evolution will manifest itself. Yet I’m certain our evolution requires your support. Perhaps our evolution involves a “membership model,” to use the business parlance. Or maybe the evolution incorporates a partial paywall. I do know the evolution already includes and will continue to feature accepting donations from readers who champion our cause.
Don’t give to us now if you only wanted to prop up a business on the verge of collapse. But invest in us later if you agree our local journalism is worth it.
If the traditional community newspaper business model is broken, it’s incumbent upon publishers to identify a new one. I’m convinced that model, for us and for news outlets across our country, must include ongoing support from you, our cherished readers, and not exclusively through subscriptions. In other words, you’ll be hearing from me again, and to remain healthy, we’ll need to solicit funding when we’re stable, not only when we’re in critical condition.
And as our region gets healthy and prepares to begin cautiously reopening this week, I’m proud to tell you the state of Examiner Media is strong, and my gratitude for your support has never been greater. Thank you, readers, and please be in touch. We’re here for you, and we’re still here because of you.
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