Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Nonprofit news organizations are becoming more diverse, but they still lag behind the communities they cover
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March 12, 2020, 1:38 p.m.

“This time is different”: In Seattle, social distancing forces The Stranger to make a coronavirus plea

Alt-weeklies’ revenues are disproportionately tied to locals gathering together in groups — at concerts, bars, restaurants, and other events and places where people stand less than six feet apart.

In a memo to staff, The New York Times called the coronavirus “an enormous story, a once-in-a-generation crisis that inevitably touches everyone’s lives.” And it’s already touching — and threatening — the life of some small publications.

The Stranger, the 28-year-old alt-(bi)weekly based in Seattle, has posted a plea for contributions on its social media and as a banner on their website. Like many in the world of indie local print media, The Stranger has weathered major economic headwinds but “this time is different,” the message reads.

The Stranger says 90 percent of its revenue is “directly tied to people getting together in groups” and “the coronavirus situation has virtually eliminated this income all at once.”

Washington state has been the American epicenter for coronavirus, and efforts to limit its spread have been more intense there than elsewhere. Gov. Jay Inslee has banned gatherings of more than 250 people in three counties in the Seattle area, King, Snohomish, and Pierce, through at least the end of the month and likely longer. The Seattle Public Schools have closed. The University of Washington has moved all its classes online. Museums, arenas, stadiums, concert halls, and nightclubs have all been hit, triggering fears about the arts community’s ability to make it through the dry spell. Even usually-bustling tourist destinations are eerily empty.

Put simply, what we’re seeing in Seattle is a sobering look at what publications across the country that are dependent on advertising from events, concerts, and the like may soon be facing.

An analogous situation is unfolding in Austin, where the alt-weekly Austin Chronicle has long counted on SXSW for a major part of its annual revenue. With SXSW’s cancellation this year, the Chronicle is also asking for public support.

As we’ve been writing, COVID-19 is disrupting newsrooms, and the outbreak (and the necessary public-health response to it) threaten to wreak havoc on an already-battered U.S. news industry. Another possible gut-punch could come from foundations, seeing their endowments dip alongside the stock market, withdrawing support to nonprofit news outlets.

A healthy news industry might well be able to weather this sort of (hopefully?) short-term hit. But like the virus itself, these local economic impacts will do the most damage to the already vulnerable. And The Stranger is making it clear this could be fatal.

Readers and staffers of The Stranger posted their pleas on Twitter:

The haters came out, too.

Meanwhile, The Stranger’s editor, Christopher Frizzelle, launched a series that won’t run afoul of the social distancing policies: a coronavirus book club that meets virtually. The first pick? The Plague, by Albert Camus. (Not his previous novel, L’Étranger.) “Weekend project! Social distancing! Fun!”

Photo of a Stranger newspaper box in 2011 by amy used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 12, 2020, 1:38 p.m.
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