Working from home, locking the doors, reducing days, positions: Members hope this is not the new ‘normal’

We had asked a couple of weeks ago for changes newspapers are making to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. We had a few responses and passed those along to Peter Baniak for his story shared statewide on how newspapers are changing their business model.

Thursday, we asked again. One publisher wanted to know what newspapers are doing, are they making other changes and he’d probably use that information to see if there were changes he hadn’t thought of.

The responses were quick and overwhelming. In just a few hours, 37 publishers responded but understand that some of those responding oversee as many as eight newspapers. So the answers actually involve many more than just 37 newspapers. If I had to guess, the responses from the 37 publishers involve 60 to 65 newspapers.

I hesitated at first because publishers have more to do, more on their mind than answering a survey. We’ve had other companies, research businesses wanting to do surveys of our members during the last two-three weeks but I suggested they not do the survey at this time. Newspapers had more to do than respond to some lengthy survey that probably had been done already by someone else.

The one from KPA was kept short — four questions — for a reason, hoping several would take a minute to answer the questions:

1. Are some or many of your employees working from home? If yes, what percentage of your normal staff?
2. Are you locking the doors to keep the public out or have you posted signs asking them to remain outside? (KPA has done the latter, keeping everyone except staff from entering the building).
3. Are you instead trying to operate as much “as normal” as possible?
4. Are you planning any changes in the coming days to how you’re operating now (cutting a production day, shortening the work week, allowing more to work from home, etc)?
We learned a lot more than the first questionnaire gave:
• Most newspapers are allowing staff members to work from home. Anywhere from 25 percent to 100 percent of the staff. One publisher notes he hasn’t seen his staff in two weeks because all are working from home. Others have employees working at home who might come in for a few minutes each day to check mail or check voicemail messages. Some have cut hours with full-time employees at 32 hours. And yes some have enacted furloughs and layoffs though not a large number reported those actions. While employees aren’t working from home, some are working evenings instead, necessitated because schools are closed and kids or grandkids need to be taken care of during the day. Shorter work days and closing the office one day a week were mentioned. One Associate Member Newspaper reported that the office is closed, all employees are working from home and for at least the next two weeks, the newspaper will be published online only, suspending its print product. A decision will be made then about whether to return to a print edition or continue as an online publication while the pandemic stays around.
• Most all are locking their doors to keep the public out though a staff member will go to the door to talk to the individual — from a socialing distance — but not allowing the public inside. Those with all employees working from home have published personal cell phone numbers and email addresses for those needing to do business with the newspaper to have a way to contact someone. Several have put “drop boxes” at the door so the public can drop off a release, announcement, ads or other things meant for the newspaper. Some are placing envelopes outside the door and having people use the envelope and slide it under the front door.
• What is normal? That was the preferred response to the third question because currently they aren’t operating the same as just a few weeks ago but are wondering if the new business model is the “new normal.” It will be several weeks before we know what normal is. Chances are some of the changes put in place during coronavirus time will be incorporated into the new operation structure. A few noted that interviewing for stories is now done by phone or email.
• Most noted that the changes they’ve made in the last two-three weeks are all the changes they plan, and really all they can do to cope, other that just closing the doors. So the changes that are in place now will probably be the only changes made “unless corporate tells us differently.” Several with TMC products have suspended that publication or are thinking about taking that action because advertising is down and inserts are few and far between. For the most part, changes that have been made are all that’s on the table right now but a few note they will continue evaluating those changes and consider others as the emergency business model evolves.
I didn’t ask for permission to identify the newspaper with any newspaper so with the lack of that permission I’m not going to give specific responses. Well, except for one, without naming it. But I’ll give you a hint — it’s the oldest newspaper in the state, it’s the oldest newspaper “West of the Alleghenies” and it’s one of the five or six oldest newspapers in the U.S.
Yes, that’s a Kentucky newspaper description, a Kentucky family-owned weekly at that. Located in Central Kentucky.
Since it’s well over 200 years old, history is there for them to check “back when” and they’re checking issues from 1918 to see how the newspaper handled news of the Spanish Flu when it hit Kentucky and the U.S. a little over 100 years ago. They are making changes they never thought they’d have to make and haven’t experienced anything like the current COVID19 crisis in the 70 or so years the family has owned the newspaper.


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