Local news has never been so critical - yet the industry is in trouble

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 11, 2020 6:14 AM CT | Published: May 11, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Eric Barnes
Daily Memphian

Eric Barnes

Eric Barnes is CEO of The Daily Memphian, host of Behind the Headlines on WKNO-TV, host of The Sidebar on WYXR 91.7, and the author of four novels.

Just over two years ago, a nonprofit called Memphis Fourth Estate Inc. began operation. I am fortunate to be one of the first two employees of that organization, which would go on to launch The Daily Memphian in September 2018.

Jason Israel, our Chief Technology Officer who was other employee who started with the company that day, has since then led the creation of a truly world-class technical back end to The Daily Memphian.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent two years doing whatever it is a CEO does – I’m still working on the job description – but which, in this case, includes getting to hear from so many people in and around Memphis who have embraced The Daily Memphian.

The awfulness and trauma of this Coronavirus pandemic has only increased the ways people have turned to The Daily Memphian. Our reader traffic has nearly doubled. Our reach on social media has increased dramatically. We’ve added many new donors.

And we’ve been adding paid subscribers at an incredible pace – a remarkable thing given that most of our content right now is focused on Coronavirus and all of those stories are free.

To all of you who have subscribed or donated (or both), thank you so much from all of us at The Daily Memphian.

Our coronavirus stories are free – and how you can help

Virtually every type of business in the country has been hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic. The news industry – especially at the local level – is one of those businesses.

And this hit comes when the industry was already in the midst of a brutal downsizing. Thousands of newspapers closed or gutted over the last decade. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs.

And yet, since the pandemic began, the decimation of local news organizations has accelerated in a way that has been breathtaking. People I know throughout the local news industry are going through furloughs, layoffs and, in some cases, the shuttering of entire newspapers.

It’s been hard to read the industry press, which catalogs a near-daily litany of further cuts, collapsing revenue, possible layoffs.

And yet, at the same time, local media is playing an incredibly crucial role in educating and informing the public. The work local papers have done nationwide is truly amazing.

Every day, journalists are enlightening the public, pressuring politicians for answers, highlighting the personal pain families and individuals are facing, profiling the businesses and employees suffering under almost unprecedented economic disruptions.

It’s been remarkable. To see news organizations like The Daily Memphian do such important work in the face of what sometimes feels like insurmountable financial headwinds.

Because the news business is so brutal and because local news is so important to communities like Memphis, The Daily Memphian pursued, and ultimately received, a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

While we’ve seen a major increase in traffic since the COVID-19 pandemic began and have converted many readers to paying subscribers (all while making all of our COVID-19 coverage free), we have also seen reductions in advertising. And, of course, we’re unable to generate sponsorship revenue for our in-person events and seminars – events that we may not be able to hold again for many, many months.

With the negative economic impact of the pandemic projected to linger for a year or even years, we knew it was the smart choice to pursue this loan. The PPP program is first and foremost meant to protect employees. Payroll is far and away our biggest expense. That’s as it should be – we have 34 full-time people in our newsroom, plus many freelancers, and our PPP loan will help pay their salaries.

As a non-profit, we don’t generate a return on investment to owners or investors. Instead, we invest all of our dollars in high-quality local journalism, and the people and technologies needed to deliver that journalism.

To those of you who have supported us through subscriptions, donations or advertising, we thank you again. Your dollars go to support our journalism through this most important – and most difficult – time.


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