The Henrico Citizen, an 18-year-old community newspaper covering Richmond’s northern neighbor, has halted its print edition, perhaps for good.
In an online letter on March 30, Citizen publisher and editor Tom Lappas announced that with many of the free newspaper’s pickup locations closed and its advertisers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the twice-monthly tabloid would stop publishing in April and post its content solely online instead.
Lappas, who founded the Citizen when he was 24, says he believes the shift to digital-only will allow the Citizen to increase its news coverage. In recent years, Lappas says the Citizen has run most of its stories online first and published them in print afterwards.
The move online comes at a time when local news outlets have been handed a devastating blow by the pandemic and its economic fallout. As many daily and weekly newspapers in small and midsized cities were already suffering from the decline of advertising revenue, the transition of readers from print to online and the lingering aftereffects of the Great Recession, closures, furloughs and salary cuts have further distressed publications around the country. Locally, those impacts have been felt as well, including at the Richmond Times-Dispatch where employees are required to take two weeks unpaid leave because of the pandemic.
As web advertisements generate a fraction of the revenue, print ads remain the bread and butter of most publications. With an unprecedented dearth of advertisers and events to advertise, local news is under siege.
Because of the pandemic, Lappas says he’d already lost two of his top three advertisers, and while he’ll probably lose more in the move to digital-only, Lappas says printing and distribution costs are 65 to 70% of his annual expenses. As to how the declines in revenue and expenses will shake out, Lappas says time will tell, but it’s “potentially a wash.”
Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, says that while there have been furloughs and a few publications have reduced how often they publish, none of the association’s roughly 175 member newspapers has said that it is closing permanently.
“Most of them feel that it’s temporary, that they’re going to restaff or take people off of furlough once business gets open again,” she says. “Newspapers have it hard, don’t get me wrong, but I think that they’re not having it worse than anybody else.”
Overall, Edwards believes that publications should return to whatever financial footing they had before the pandemic hit, and that newspapers appear to be seeing a bump in readership: “People are getting a tremendous amount of traffic to their newspaper websites because people are so interested in the coronavirus, which is interesting, because the news [coverage] has shrunk, but interest has grown, so who knows how this is going to turn out.”
Christina Bellantoni, a professor who specializes in media criticism, industry trends and political reporting at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says the impact of the pandemic on local journalism isn’t exactly rosy.
“This is just so swift and so severe. It’s devastating, and there’s nothing more important than local journalism,” says Bellantoni, who covered the Virginia General Assembly for the Washington Times in the early 2000s. “It’s been a slow, slow death now over a couple decades. I just don’t know if anybody can come back.”
Bellantoni predicts that larger, corporate-owned newspapers will survive on a reduced staff, but smaller local publications may bear the brunt of the impact.
“If I had to put a number on it, I would hope that you would see a lot of rebuilding, but I would guess that it would be less than half [of] those jobs that come back,” she says, adding that the cuts will lead to government and other institutions going unchecked. “There just is so much opportunity for corruption, and that’s what great local journalism can be [fighting]. Again and again, we’ve seen papers that are punching above their weight, demonstrating their ability to root that out.”
As for Lappas, who usually served as the Citizen’s only full-time employee, he’s hoping that the lack of a print edition will allow him more time to cover Henrico. He’s looking to hire another full-time reporter in the next month and says that his online readership in the past year eclipsed his print circulation, which varied between 12,000 and 15,000 recently.
Will the Citizen print again after the pandemic?
“The romantic journalist in me would say yes, but I think candidly, like a lot of businesses, the longer this goes on, we’re all getting used to doing things differently,” says Lappas, who stresses that the move online is a boon. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re stopping the print publication, but we’re actually producing more news.”