Category Archives: Local news media

COVID-19: Deep newspaper job cuts prompt rare plea for federal funding to news media; Reps, Senators want to help

[Editor: See also Blumenthal, Rosenthal Call For Supporting Local Journalism, The Newtown Bee.  – RS]

New closures, layoffs in already cratering industry lead to request for help from Congress

Two years ago, the Daily Guide newspaper closed for good in central Missouri. Now, newspapers across the country are cutting staff and closing due to coronavirus shutdowns. (Orlin Wagner/AP)
Washington Post, by Jonathan O’Connell, April 16, 2020

An economic free fall in the local news industry began long before the coronavirus started wreaking havoc on the national economy.

Since shutdowns to combat the virus began, things have gotten much worse, as advertisers halted spending and publishers slashed more journalists’ jobs and hours despite the public’s need for information on the pandemic.

Cuts to the industry have accelerated so greatly that groups representing journalists have taken a maybe unprecedented step and asked the government to help, by keeping the industry afloat financially during the pandemic and seeding its resurgence once the economy begins to recover.

“We have to treat this as an emergency,” said Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild labor union. “There is a real interest in public health to keep people informed in this crisis.”

Staff at the guild, which was founded during the Great Depression, said they cannot remember asking for taxpayer support. The role of the Fourth Estate in covering the government makes such a request awkward.

But since the pandemic began, newspaper chains have instituted furloughs of 10 to 25 percent of their staffs. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which covers a metropolitan area of more than 2 million people, lost 28 of its 32 union journalists this month due to new cuts. Papers in Seattle, Portland, Boston, Sacramento, Reno and elsewhere have suspended print operations and furloughed their staffs, according to Poynter.

In a span of two days, April 8 and 9, dozens of groups wrote to Congress asking it to support local news. The guild wrote congressional leadership seeking financial support as part of ongoing economic stimulus discussions. A long list of advocacy groups, led by Pen America and Common Cause, wrote their own letter. Industry groups led by the News Media Alliance and the National Association of Broadcasters wrote as well.

The cutbacks in advertising are “dealing a sharp and immediate blow to local news publishing,” said News Media Alliance president and chief executive David Chavern, in a statement. “If this continues, there won’t be local journalism in many communities.”

Although other industries have asked Congress for financial support due to the pandemic, requests from the news media raise numerous issues. Congressional leadership has not agreed on what another round of bailout money will look like, with some Republicans resisting policy changes that could benefit one industry or another.

Policymakers are also wrestling with whether aid that has already been approved, in the $2.2 trillion Cares Act, should go to companies that were already struggling. Retailers, for instance, have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers but may not be eligible for aid because of questions about their credit and viability. Many newspaper companies, such as McClatchy, which filed for bankruptcy in February, could carry similar concerns.

Policymakers have also resisted bailing out private equity funds, which have a habit of buying companies, including many newspaper publishers, and then siphoning off profits while cutting staff. Indeed, private equity firms have been behind many of the cuts that led to America losing an estimated one-quarter of its journalists from 2008 to 2018.

Some newspaper owners are likely to be eligible for aid from existing programs in the Cares Act aimed at benefiting workers in a wide range of industries. McClatchy, publisher of the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star and other regional dailies, declined to comment on what aid it might pursue, as did Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other papers.

There is also the question of whether news publishers would sacrifice some of their independence in asking the government for a special carve-out the way hotels, airlines and other industries have.

Gannett, which recently combined with GateHouse Media in a $1.2 billion deal, announced last month that chief executive Paul Bascobert would stop taking a salary, that it would cut executives’ pay by 25 percent and that it would require most reporters and editors across the country to take week-long, unpaid furloughs on a rotating basis.

Gannett, based in McLean, Va., issued a statement saying it is considering some of the benefits provided to all U.S. companies through the Cares Act. However, the company said it has “no plans to pursue special relief from the government.”

“Maintaining our independence is critically important,” spokeswoman Stephanie Tackach said in a statement. “As a news organization, we play an essential role providing our communities with clear, up-to-date information.”

Schleuss said he understands why any publisher or journalist would be reticent to make such a request, but the pandemic created unique urgency to avoid what he called an “extinction-level event” for the industry.

The guild has called for financial support that requires recipients to remain independent from political influence, halt job cuts, provide board seats to employees and promote diversity and equity in newsrooms.

“In this moment especially, we have to keep journalists employed,” Schleuss said. “People are just hearing crackpot cures and ideas on Facebook because they have no other better source for information. And that’s a real shame for America.”

To address those concerns, members of Congress, who are focused on the issue, are highlighting the unique role that local news plays in society. Nineteen Senate Democrats, led by Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), wrote their own April 8 letter to congressional leadership, asking that any future stimulus packages related to the coronavirus contain funding to “support local journalism and media.”

“Such a provision should be tailored to benefit aid recipients who make a long-term commitment to high quality local news,” they wrote.

Other members of Congress are advancing more specific plans. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has drafted a bill that would require half of government advertising for things such as the census and military recruitment go to publishers of local news, rather than national outlets. It would also create a tax credit for publishers who hire local news reporters, a new loan program for publishers, and would encourage some publishers to become nonprofit organizations.

Ryan said he began focusing on the demise of local news when the 150-year-old daily paper in Youngstown, Ohio, went out of business last year. He said he hopes his ideas will be considered part of stimulus discussions. A dozen House Democrats have signed on to the idea, but no Republican has.

“Every politician has a complicated relationship with the media, but it is an essential component of democracy,” Ryan said in an interview. He said local city council meetings and decision-making often go uncovered.

“There is just a general concern that no one is keeping an eye on local government anymore,” he said.


Jonathan O’Connell is a reporter focused on economic development, corporate accountability and the Trump Organization.

NY Times report on rescue of local newspaper in Downieville, CA

Meet the Unlikely Hero Saving California’s Oldest Weekly Paper

High in the Sierra, Downieville, Calif., was about to become the latest American community to lose its newspaper. In stepped Carl Butz, a 71-year-old retiree.

Carl Butz, the new owner of The Mountain Messenger, in the paper’s office in Downieville, Calif.
deser Carl Butz, the new owner of The Mountain Messenger, in the paper’s office in Downieville, Calif. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
New York Times, By Tim Arango, Feb. 10, 2020

DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. — The night before his first deadline, Carl Butz, California’s newest newspaper owner, was digging into a bowl of beef stew at the Two Rivers Café, the only restaurant open in town.

“Tomorrow I have to fill the paper,” he said with only mild anxiety. “The question is, will it be a four-page paper or a six-page paper?”

At 71, Mr. Butz is trim, with wire-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped silver beard, and he dresses in flannel shirts and cargo pants. Since his retirement and his wife’s death in 2017, he considered traveling — to England or Latvia, or riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. But here he was, a freshly minted newspaper proprietor, having stepped in at the beginning of the year to save The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, from extinction.

The Messenger was founded in 1853. Its most famous scribe was Mark Twain, who once wrote a few stories — with a hangover, the legend goes — while hiding out here from the law.

Newspapers across America, especially in rural areas like here in Sierra County, have been dying at an alarming rate, and Downieville was about to become the latest “news desert.” The obituaries for the paper had already been written. Don Russell, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking editor with a blunt writing style who had owned and run the paper for nearly three decades, was retiring, and he seemed happy enough for the paper to die with his retirement.

And then one night Mr. Butz was watching “Citizen Kane” on cable and thought, I can do that. He made the deal quickly, paying a price in the “four figures,” he said, plus the assumption of some debts, without even looking at the books.

Still, Mr. Russell, an old friend of Mr. Butz’s, was a reluctant seller. “His position was, it’s a losing proposition and someone who’d want it would be crazy,” Mr. Butz said. “He called me a romantic idealist and a nut case. And that’s not a paraphrase, but a direct quote.”

For the residents of Downieville — and there are not many; the population is about 300 — who for generations counted on The Messenger to arrive every Thursday, through wildfires and power outages and economic booms and busts, Mr. Butz has become an unlikely local hero, a savior of a cherished institution.

“Thank God for Carl, he stepped in,” said Liz Fisher, a former editor of the paper who lives across the street from its office and runs The Sierra County Prospect, an online news site. “It was devastating for everybody that we were going to lose The Mountain Messenger.”

A cluttered, smoke-filled newsroom

On a recent Wednesday morning, facing his first deadline, Mr. Butz was staring down a blank computer screen in the newspaper’s cramped two-room office above a beauty salon on Main Street. Mr. Butz, a fourth-generation Californian and a former computer programmer and labor economist for the state, readily admitted that he had no idea what he had gotten himself into, and it did not help to learn that the paper’s publishing software was from the mid-1990s.

One of the first things he said he would do after buying the paper was ban smoking in the office, but next to his keyboard was a package of unfiltered cigarettes and an ashtray.

“What is the lead story?” Mr. Butz asked.

“The front page is blank,” replied Jill Tahija, the paper’s only other employee, sitting at an adjacent computer.

Mr. Butz and Jill Tahija, The Messenger’s only other employee, working on an edition of the paper.
Mr. Butz and Jill Tahija, The Messenger’s only other employee, working on an edition of the paper. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Ms. Tahija, who has worked at The Messenger for 11 years, might properly be called the managing editor, but on her business cards it says, “she who does the work.”

Her small black-and-white dog, Ladybug, a Boston terrier-Shih Tzu-Chihuahua mix, bounded around the cluttered newsroom. On every surface were books and trinkets and junk — Civil War histories, annals of the county, dictionaries, empty beer bottles, packages of ramen noodles.

In the archives section are old papers dating to the 1850s, and on the walls are pictures of Mark Twain and some slogans — old saws of newspapering, like “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Mr. Russell, who was on vacation, driving his R.V. up the coast with his wife, when Mr. Butz took over the paper, once told The Los Angeles Times that Twain had written a few unremarkable stories for The Messenger. Mr. Russell had read them on microfilm at a library. “They were awful,” he said. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”

At his computer, Mr. Butz was putting together one of his first new features for the paper, a “poetry corner.” (He selected “Thoughts,” by Myra Viola Wilds, an African-American poet from Kentucky who wrote in the early 20th century.) As Ms. Tahija worked on the front page — the next day it would be filled with stories about a local poetry competition, the upcoming census, wildfire prevention and a local supervisors meeting — Mr. Butz shifted his focus to finishing his letter to readers.

In it, he explained why he bought the paper. “Simply put,” he wrote, “the horrible thought of this venerable institution folding up and vanishing after 166 years of continuous operation was simply more than I could bear.”

The newspaper, he wrote, was “something we need in order to know ourselves.”

‘Like losing a friend’

Making a newspaper in Downieville is strictly an analog, ink-on-paper affair; there is no website, no social media accounts. It loses a few thousand dollars a year, and relies mostly on publishing legal notices from the county and other government offices, which brings in about $50,000 a year, for the bulk of its revenue. It has about 700 subscribers and a print run of 2,400 copies, just below the county’s population.

“I’m not going to lose a million dollars but I know I’m going to have to subsidize some of it,” Mr. Butz said. “My daughter is already aware that her inheritance is shrinking.”

Downtown Downieville.
Downtown Downieville. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Downieville is a remarkably well-preserved old Gold Rush town, perched at a fork in the Yuba River in remote western Sierra County. History is its pitch to tourists, and it has the feel of a backlot for an Old West movie — in its corner saloon, in the one-lane bridges over the Yuba, and in the second-story offices of The Messenger, next to the Fire Department. (A painted message on the door says it is the “oldest volunteer fire department west of the Mississippi.”)

With the demise of gold mining and the shuttering of the sawmills that were once an economic engine for the region, Downieville reinvented itself as a destination for mountain biking and fly fishing, with an abundance of Old West charm.

Residents reacted to Mr. Butz’s last-minute purchase of the paper with a mixture of relief and gratitude.

“A real sense of relief,” said Lee Adams, a former Sierra County sheriff and a current member of the county’s Board of Supervisors.

The paper was always an important institution, but it had become more so in recent years as Northern California dailies like The Sacramento Bee and The San Francisco Chronicle stopped distributing in the region, and rarely sent reporters to cover Sierra County.

“We would have to fall off the face of the earth to make one of those papers on a normal news day,” Mr. Adams said.

An edition of the weekly paper was distributed in Sierra County, Calif., on a recent Thursday.
An edition of the weekly paper was distributed in Sierra County, Calif., on a recent Thursday. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

The Messenger is more than just a chronicle of weekly happenings — government meetings, births and deaths, the police blotter, the weather — but also a repository of the county’s history. The paper is just a year younger than Sierra County, which was founded in 1852, the year Wells Fargo was established to serve the Gold Rush and the riches being dredged from the river.

When Bill Copren, 76, a local historian and a former county assessor, wrote his master’s thesis on the political history of Sierra County in the mid-19th century, he relied on The Messenger’s archives.

More recently, when officials secured a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for a local school built in the Art Deco style in 1931, they used the paper’s archives to confirm the details of how it was built and who paid for it.

The paper’s closure, Mr. Copren said, would have been “like losing a friend.”

Under Mr. Russell, The Messenger had a distinctive attitude and a brusque, straightforward style. He was averse to political correctness and not immune from using curse words in print.

Mr. Butz said he did not plan to own the paper for long, and wanted to find a younger person who could take over. He said he was thinking about bringing the paper into the digital age, with a website, and was thinking about turning it into a nonprofit publication, accepting donations and grants to keep it running.

But on a recent Thursday morning, the day after deadline, he was just happy to have his first issue under his belt.

His Thursday routine is now established: He gets up early and drives about an hour and a half to a printing plant in Quincy, Calif., to pick up the bundles of freshly printed newspapers. On the way, he and Scott McDermid, the paper’s longtime distribution manager, stop at the Express Coffee Shop for waffles and eggs.

Mr. Butz putting copies of The Messenger in a distribution box outside the Golden West Saloon in Loyalton, Calif.
Mr. Butz putting copies of The Messenger in a distribution box outside the Golden West Saloon in Loyalton, Calif. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

And then, with a truck full of papers, they crisscross the county, past the tall cedars and Douglas firs of the mountains, and across the Sierra Valley, dotted with junipers and cottonwoods, stopping at every shop and gas station, emptying newspaper machines of last week’s edition, collecting money and dropping off fresh bundles of The Messenger.

The story around town is how Mr. Butz saved the local newspaper.

But Mr. Butz, a still-grieving widower — his wife, Cecilia Kuhn, the drummer in an all-female punk band, Frightwig, died in 2017 — sees it another way.

“It’s saving me,” he said.

Publishing The Messenger is an analog, ink-on-paper affair. There are no social media accounts, though Mr. Butz said he was thinking about creating a website for the paper.
Publishing The Messenger is an analog, ink-on-paper affair. There are no social media accounts, though Mr. Butz said he was thinking about creating a website for the paper. Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
Tim Arango is a Los Angeles correspondent. Before moving to California, he spent seven years as Baghdad bureau chief and also reported on Turkey. He joined The Times in 2007 as a media reporter.

News desert avoided: California’s oldest weekly newspaper saved from closure

Restart the presses: California’s oldest weekly newspaper saved

The Los Angeles Times, by Brittny Mejia, January 7, 2020
Don Russell
Don Russell works in the Mountain Messenger newsroom in Downieville, Calif.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The state’s oldest weekly newspaper, which once published Mark Twain, will keep printing after a California retiree stepped in to save the day.

Carl Butz, a fourth-generation native Californian, is taking over the Mountain Messenger, which is based out of his hometown of Downieville.

The 71-year-old has been friends with Don Russell, the editor-publisher of the paper, since moving to the town in the 1990s and was aware of his troubles trying to sell the paper over the last year.

Russell planned to retire by the middle of January. On Thursday, he told the printer the paper would soon cease publication. Russell ran the numbers and told Butz, “It’s hopeless … don’t do this.”

The next day, Butz came in with a check.

“I said, ‘OK, it’s not going to cost that much — I’m going to save it,’” Butz said. “I’m going to try and make sure the thing survives.”

Butz is aiming for a nonprofit model and wants to rely on more volunteers to help fill the paper, which for a long time has fallen on the paper’s two full-time employees, Russell and Jill Tahija.

He’s already found a woman in Sierra City who wants to cover the Board of Supervisors meetings, he said, and staff will send out subscription renewal cards once more.

Mountain Messenger newspaper
Copies of the Mountain Messenger. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

As newspapers shut down nationwide, Butz is happy to keep the Mountain Messenger going.

 The Martinez News-Gazette  printed its final edition last week, after 161 years of publishing. The paper, which covered the city of Martinez, the seat of Contra Costa County, had been losing money.

“There’s just been this rash of these things across the country; you lose the community,” Butz said. “I think we need to have newspapers.”

The Mountain Messenger, which publishes on Thursdays, has a circulation of about 2,400. The paper dates to 1853, when it was started as a twice-monthly publication.

It became the Mountain Messenger in 1854 or 1855 and moved to La Porte, and then to Downieville, a Gold Rush community about 110 miles northeast of Sacramento.

The paper’s claim to fame is that Twain once wrote there while hiding out from the law. He was only there for a couple of weeks, writing under his real name, Sam Clemens, according to Russell, who read some of his articles on microfilm.

“They were awful,” Russell said in a previous interview with The Times. “They were just local stories, as I recall, written by a guy with a hangover.”

Russell became co-owner of the paper, known around the area as the “Mountain Mess,” in the early 1990s. The Jan. 16 edition will be his last in his current role.

“I don’t have to clean out the office. That’s a huge relief,” Russell said. He is planning to take a vacation with his wife on the 20th, but his association with the paper “will continue for the foreseeable future.”

“It’s the absolute best thing I could have hoped for,” he said. “I get to do the stuff I like to do and not have to do the stuff I don’t like to do.”


Also… as appearing in the Vallejo Times-Herald:

Man saves California’s oldest weekly newspaper from closure

Associated Press, January 8, 2020

In this Dec. 13, 2018, photo, press operators check the freshly printed issue of The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper, at the pressroom of Feather Publishing Co., in Quincy, Calif. The paper began in 1853 as a twice-per-month publication; its claim to fame is that Mark Twain once wrote there under his real name, Sam Clemens. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via AP)

DOWNIEVILLE, Calif. (AP) — A retiree has canceled an around-the-world trip to save California’s oldest weekly newspaper, which was set to shut down when its editor retires this month.

The paper began in 1853 as a twice-per-month publication; its claim to fame is that Mark Twain once wrote there under his real name, Sam Clemens. He was there hiding out from authorities in Nevada, where he had accepted a challenge to a duel after dueling had been outlawed, Don Russell, 70, the current publisher who is retiring told SFGate.

Carl Butz, 71, says he is taking over the Mountain Messenger, which is based out of his hometown of Downieville and covers two rural counties northeast of Sacramento. Terms of the deal were not immediately disclosed.

“I’ve been a widower for three years and this is a new chapter in my life,” Butz, who lives in an off-the-grid cabin, told SFGate. “What am I going to do? Go on another trip around the world? Instead, I’m doing something good for the community, and I feel good about it.”

Known around the area as the “Mountain Mess,” the paper covers school board meetings, federal land use and other issues.

Russell, the Mountain Messenger’s editor-publisher, told The Los Angeles Times he is planning to retire soon and had spent the past year trying to sell the paper but hadn’t received any offers.

Russell became co-owner of the paper in the early 1990s. The Jan. 16 edition will be his last in his current role but he said he plans to continue his association with the paper after he takes a vacation with his wife.

“It’s the absolute best thing I could have hoped for,” he said. “I get to do the stuff I like to do and not have to do the stuff I don’t like to do.”

A retired independent software consultant, Butz plans to run the weekly as a nonprofit and do some writing and editing. He will rely on volunteers to help fill the paper. He’s already found a woman who wants to cover the Board of Supervisors meetings, he said.

As newspapers shut down nationwide, Butz says he is happy to keep the Mountain Messenger going.

“There’s just been this rash of these things across the country; you lose the community,” Butz said.